Intermission: St Brigid and the Machine
Saint of the day, and some other things
Today is the first day of spring here in Ireland. There is plenty of winter still to go - the soil won’t really start really warming up until May - but something happens today and you can always feel it in the land. There is a turning. After today, the shoots will start emerging faster, the trees will start budding, the birdsong will change its tone. From tomorrow there will be no excuse for me not to go out and start to get my hands dirty again. I note this with some regret. I enjoy my dark winter nights by the fire.
This is St Brigid’s Day, named for one of Ireland’s three patron saints, the other two being Columba and Patrick. The traditional activity that marks the day is to make a Brigid’s Cross out of rushes, and throw last year’s, which by now is yellow and brittle, onto the fire. You should probably say a prayer while you do so; it can never be a bad thing to ask for good fortune for the year ahead. Pin the cross on your mantel or on the rafters, and it is said to protect your home from fire.
Brigid of Kildare was a fifth century nun, and the founder of what was probably Ireland’s earliest monastic community. Details of her life are sparse, as you might expect from Ireland in the 400s. One story has it that her father was a pagan nobleman and her mother a Christian slave. Brigid’s mother was only one of her father’s many wives (men having only one wife being one of those weird Christian customs that had yet to catch on) and wife number one had Brigid’s mother banished from the family out of jealousy. Brigid grew up strong willed, refusing all offers of marriage, to the chagrin of her father (perhaps she’d seen enough of what marriages like that could lead to) and dedicating her life to God instead. Her seventh-century biographer suggests that she was set on her path by hearing St Patrick preach as a young girl.
As a nun and Abbess, Brigid became renowned for giving everything she had (and sometimes things that other people had) to the poor. This was a pattern begun in childhood, when she had given her mother’s entire store of butter to a poor family and her father’s jewel-encrusted sword to a beggar. She once said she would give the whole of the Kingdom of Leinster to the poor if she could. The force of her personality, her love for the weak and the work done by the monastery she founded had her considered a saint in her own lifetime, as did her miracles, of which my favourite is the turning of water into beer: a very northern European version of Jesus’s wedding gift. After her death, the ‘Mary of the Gaels’ became the centre of a cult across Ireland and further afield. Her miraculous help with childbirth, her protection of flocks and herds, and the healing power of her wells testified to her continued presence in the landscape.
That, at any rate, is the Christian version of her life. There is a neo-pagan version too, which is gaining in popularity as Irish Christianity wanes. This has it that St Brigid never existed at all: she was a Christianisation of the pre-Christian ‘Celtic’ goddess Brigid, said to have been the goddess of fire and poetry, amongst other things. St Brigid’s Day is, after all, the same date as the old pre-Christian festival of Imbolc. Mother goddesses are more fashionable these days than Christian saints, and so it goes with the grain of the times to tell a tale of a female goddess displaced by a male God.
Ironically though, to my mind, this erases the story of one of the most remarkable woman saints of early Europe; one who vied for some time with Patrick for supremacy in representing Ireland as a nation. Brigid’s modern biographer, Alice Curtayne, saw the saint as a pioneer. The female community of ‘Brigidines’ she gathered around her in Kildare, said Curtayne, was centuries ahead of its time:
Nine hundred years were to elapse before anything resembling the Brigidine group was to appear on the continent of Europe … In France there was nothing remotely resembling such feminine initiative until the seventeenth century; and in England nothing that at least recalled it until the nineteenth century … very astonishing indeed is the discovery that the feminine inspiration which delighted Europe in later centuries down to modern times was already an accepted feature of the early Irish church.
Was Brigid, then, a pagan or a Christian? Maybe the boundary line is more porous than it might seem. Why could the shoulders of this early Christian saint not also have carried a load of pre-Christian meaning? After all, the Irish are said to have converted to Christianity without any blood being shed. Maybe they saw something that they already recognised, born now in a new and final form: a mustard seed sown by Brigid and her women, beginning to flower into a tree. Or perhaps they were just ready to slough off their dark old stories for something brighter and more forgiving. Those old ‘Celtic gods’ weren’t as enamoured of peace ‘n’ love as some of their contemporary followers, after all. As G. K. Chesterton once wrote: ‘pagans were wiser than paganism. That’s why they became Christians.’
Some things can never be known. But if you want to weave a cross today to celebrate the coming of spring, this nice lady will show you how. Ours will be going up above our fireplace until next year.
The Machine Rebellion
A few weeks ago I was invited to talk to one of the founders of Substack, Hamish McKenzie, about my work here at the Abbey, for a regular podcast he runs about Substack’s writers. It was an enjoyable conversation, and a wide-ranging one: we seemed to cover about three decades of my life in an hour and a bit. Amongst other things, we talked about the Machine, writing, religion, growing old, covid vaccines, censorship, online mobs, smallholding, writing from the margins and the death of my father. Phew. You can listen to it here if you want to.
Meanwhile, another writer, Michael Spencer, has written an intriguing post on his own Substack, AI Supremacy, which I can recommend if you want to keep up with what is going on in the world of Artificial Intelligence. Spencer doesn’t appear to have a particular agenda other than tracking what is happening in AI development, and as such it’s interesting to see him writing about what he calls a Machine Rebellion: that is, people who are using this platform in particular to foment resistance to the Machine. Apparently I am at the ‘centre’ of this ‘new movement’, which is news to me, and not especially welcome news either. I’ve had enough of movements. Still, I’m glad to see this being written, and especially glad to see other writers being gathered together around this theme. More strength to their arm.
A happy St Brigid’s day to all of my readers.
Thank you for this. I remember touring around Ireland a few years ago and coming upon a sort of shrine to St. Brigid where people left prayers and mementos for their sick and deceased loved ones. Most people left pictures or statues of the Virgin, prayer beads, photographs of the people they were praying for. Someone had left an empty vodka bottle--perhaps praying for the strength to make it their last. But the most moving artifact of all, for me, was a little plastic Power Ranger action figure. I imagined what the story behind that child's toy might be and it brought tears to my eyes. It was a sacred place, of that I had no doubt.
On an unrelated note, I am happy that you're becoming the centre of a movement, however uncomfortable that might make you. (Humility is a good thing.) Just today a fellow psychiatrist told me he felt as if there was "a dark spirit pulling us toward a dark place" and I recommended that he read your Substack. It's been an immense help to me and many others in trying to make sense of this "dark spirit." Carry on with your good work, Mr. Kingsnorth. It is more valuable than you can imagine.
Wonderful, thank you.