Credit: Wolfgang Sauber on Wiki CC BY-SA 1.0

A Post-Modern Makeover for St Brigid is Cultural Appropriation

The government has decided we should have a new national holiday and some liberal progressives are pushing hard for that holiday to fall on February 1st which has been associated with the Christian saint, Brigid, for most of fifteen centuries.  It seems St Brigid will be part of the deal as a radically made over, updated icon, ready to take her place in woke, post-modern Ireland.

Melanie Lynch whose publicly funded project, Herstory, promotes the stories of selected Irish women from history who can be cast as prototype feminists, is spearheading the campaign.. Herstory, not surprisingly, before its re-appropriation of the sixth century abbess, Brigid, has never shown any interest in religious foundresses, particularly those about whom we have far more accurate, verifiable information. There is no mention of the most outstanding, Nano Nagle, who provided education for the poor children of eighteenth century Cork and founded a network of Presentation convents and schools, that spread not alone throughout Ireland but across the world. Surely, she is worthy of inclusion among the great women of Irish history or ‘herstory’ to use Melanie Lynch’s term? The reason that the omission of Nano from Herstory narratives is so glarning is that  Nano was named ‘the greatest Irish woman of all time’ in a poll conducted by the Marion Finucane Show in 2005.  Nano had an overwhelming lead over the runner up, the glass ceiling smashing, first female President of Ireland, Mary Robinsonn.

I am not suggesting that Nano, whose Feastday is celebrated on November 21st, should replace Brigid as the Irishwoman to be honoured in the new national holiday. February 1st, the official start of Spring, with roots in paganism as well as Chrstianity seems a good choice for a more pluralist age. However, the ideological tilt of Herstory which is driving the campaign for ‘Brigid’s Day’ as the choice for the new national holiday, is important because of the way it feeds into the appropriation and reinvention of Brigid as a suitable female icon for post-Repeal Ireland.

St Brigid, abbess of a convent in Co Kildare in the sixth century, is as much a figure of legend as of history. Every convent educated child is familiar with stories like the one where she requested a local landowner to give her as much land as her cloak would cover. He agreed readily of course.  When her cloak stretched itself over a great tract of land he honoured the deal and Brigid was on the way to establishing her network of foundations. In pictures, Brigid is depicted as a nun in both dress and demeanour. She is often associated with images of domesticity and healing and was famed for her catechetical creativity like St Patrick. The St Brigid’s Cross made of reeds was a teaching aid that complements St Patrick’s use of the shamrock to explain the Trinity.

Of course St Brigid’s Feastday, like many other Christian festivals, represented a re-purposing of the ancient celtic celebration of Imbolc. Imbolc is understood to incorporate the Irish word ‘bolg’ meaning belly. It was clearly enough a celebration of fertility. It had its rituals. History and archaeology point to human sacrifice as a feature of celtic rituals. The ‘bog bodies’ discovered in recent years in Ireland attest to the practice of grisly ritual killing, believed to be carried out to appease the Earth Goddess.  So the appropriation of Imbolc to celebrate the life of a Chrstian foundress would seem to have been a very genuinely progressive step indeed back in the sixth century.

Melanie Lynch wants to reverse history and reimpose a mythological, as opposed to historical, figure of Brigid the Celtic Goddess of fertility, on St. Brigid’s Day. She has commissioned artist, Jim Fitzpatrick, to produce an image of Brigid that captures the concept. The painting of an ethereally beautiful, young woman in diaphanous veils with flowing hair representing flames and streams, does not look remotely like the vengeful goddess of an age that practiced ritual sacrifice. She is a creature of pure invention and modern imagining, an image from a fairy tale not an ancient savage cult.

What makes this arrogant, ahistorical act of cultural expropriation really offensive is that, in an effort to merge Brigid of antiquity and folklore with the Christian abbess, who certainly existed, the artist has placed a cross worn like an ornament on her forehead. In an age that gets offended by cultural appropriation by children at Halloween, this cynical ploy would doubtlessly attract outrage if the culture being appropriated was anything other than Chrstian and Catholic.

But it does not rest there.  Melanie Lynch declares that St Brigid was not in any sense the demure abbess we learned about in school.  According to her take on early biographies, she was a lesbian and an abortionist.  There is scant evidence for either assertion.

First, nobody ever stated she was a lesbian. For one thing, the word only first surfaced in medical journals in the nineteenth century. So what exactly do historical documents say to make people think she actually was one? Well they record she had a faithful companion, her pupil, who went on to succeed her as abbess.  Just that in various versions. If you read the biographies of any foundress, or indeed founder, whether of religious or secular institutions, you usually find plenty of evidence of them having protégés they groomed to succeed them. People who put their whole lives into a project are naturally enough anxious about securing their legacy. Indeed it is not just founders but politicians and statesmen who very often ‘anoint their successors’ so their vision endures after them. The kindest thing we can say about Melanie Lynch’s conclusions is that they are wishful interpretations by somebody with little knowledge of reading history in context.

That is even more true of her assertion that Brigid was an abortionist though here she may have a degree of support from some professional historians. There are indeed accounts of saints, Brigid is not unique, praying over women, pregnant outside of wedlock, whose pregnancies subsequently ‘disappeared’ or ‘vanished’. As evidence for abortion this is at best equivocal.  One thing is certain. It  does not mean is that the Church of the time was a ‘more compassionate progressive’ Church, as Melanie Lynch puts it in relation to abortion.  That could not be further from the case. There is an abundance of evidence from the writings of both the Church Fathers and the Irish monks, who wrote manuals to guide confessors in appropriate penances for sins of every kind. The Penitential of Finnian, written around 591, states ‘ if a woman by her magic destroys the child she has conceived, she shall do penance for half a year with an allowance of bread and water’.  The fact that other sins attracted greater punishment is not a measure of the gravity of abortion for the early Irish Church but of its mercy, relatively speaking, towards a woman in a difficult situation. Pope Francis regards abortion as ‘a grave sin that puts an end to an innocent life’, even though he has made it easier for women to get absolution than it had been under his predecessors.

The question of evidence aside, even if a saint did somehow cause an abortion to happen or pray for it to happen, or if somebody else thought she did because the woman went on to miscarry, that is not evidence that the Church of the time was ‘more progressive’ than it is now. The Church’s teaching has not changed.  Melanie Lynch makes assertions upon assertions, not evidence.

St Patrick’s Day has been overlaid, and overloaded, with secularist imagery and rituals for decades but it still remains a Catholic and Christian feast day as well as secular holiday.  The saint is still depicted as a Christian bishop and holds a shamrock and that image has never been distorted out of recognition however it is trivialised.  It is certainly the very opposite of feminist principle to re-invent Ireland’s historic Christian Patroness as a post-modern fantasy of what a fertility goddess of pre-Christian Ireland could look like when grafted to a contemporary, secular take of a ‘progressive’ medieval nun.

February 1st as a national holiday? Why not? Just leave St Brigid out of it unless you also mark the day as the feast day it has been on the Christian calendar for close on a millennium and a half.  May 1st is just Mayday or Labour Day for most of the world. The fact that it is also the Feast of St Joseph the Worker need concern nobody except the Christian faithful. The Day after Christmas is a national holiday and historically the Church’s Feastday of St Stephen but you don’t need to re-imagine St. Stephen as anything other than the Church’s first martyr.

The secular world has left the feast day of St Nicholas, celebrated on December 6th, alone despite drawing on the saint’s life for the mythical figure of Santa Claus (literally St Nicholas).  The cult of Santa Claus did not begin as an arbitrary act of cultural appropriation; it gradually evolved away from anything much resembling its inspiration. That is the normal way of the world as cultures evolve and change over time. It once worked in Christianity’s favour when pagan practices morphed into religious ones.

It is an entirely different thing for a self-appointed cultural commissar or group to cynically and manipulatively hollow out a long established cultural icon or celebration with an edit, copy and paste exercise using ancient documents, modern tropes and artistic licence to produce a hodge podge of a national story that reflects nothing except the preferences and prejudices of its authors.

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