Although by many calendars today, February 2nd is Imbolc and for many that includes the olden goddess Bridget, in my local community and for many in Ireland, February 1st is considered St Bridget’s day.
In one of my local towns – and even as I say that I realise it sounds strange however there are a few towns around here that feel like local towns to me now because of where I shop or go to night classes – now where was I? In Ballinamore, Co. Leitrim, there is a shrine to Bridget which is above the town and beside the graveyard. It is always well cared for and has candles lighting there regularly and sometimes little momentoes or even coins left there for special intention.
I would say that most people who spend reflective time there may be addressing their intentions towards St Bridget, for me there is simply Bridget and I love that connection between the older pagan type spirituality and the newer christian spirituality, that they can often exist side by side, chose which ever you wish.
Bridgets Day is still held as a pattern day in Ballinamore. A pattern day is a very old custom in Ireland and thankfully is respected still in many rural areas, when the local people gather and pray at a shrine or holy-well or even at holy rocks. There is a pattern to the praying, a certain ritual to be followed whether it be walking sun-wise (clockwise) around the shrine for a set number of times reciting a certain prayer or group of prayers such as a rosary.
In Ballinamore the pattern includes walking around the shrine and through a small part of the graveyard – I need to ask more about this locally. Last year I took part and did what I saw others doing. There is a lovely feeling in taking part of an ancient outdoor ritual with people from the local community, even though I only knew a few faces.
I loved the fact that this pattern is considered such a regular part of life here. There were people young and old, walking alone as I was or with family, neighbours or friends. Some pray aloud, some pray quietly, moving their lips and many were simply reflective or praying to themselves, rosary beads swaying as they walked slowly and reverently in the footsteps of so many before them.
There were many cars parked at the roadside in which some people, many quite old and stiffened with age and life, had travelled to the shrine. Most local people had walked the distance from town as people had done in years gone past, for many the walk from town is part of the pattern and they pray as they walk. Even the younger ones who walked with friends were keeping a respectful atmosphere, chatting very quietly with each other. Others, like myself, had maybe travelled from the surrounding countryside to be there.
This year as I took a few moments of quiet at the shrine lighting a votive candle I noticed that there were a lot people setting off down the wee side road that runs alongside the graveyard after they had finished their rounds of the graveyard. They were all wearing wellies (rubber boots), some were carrying little empty water bottles and they were all keeping the silence of pray-full space with them.
Always up for an adventure, especially a spiritual adventure, I followed off down the road too. This was great fun and unexpected, to be heading off down a road I never walked before, not knowing where I was heading, how long it would take or even if I would get there as everyone else was obviously dressed for all sorts or terrain with their waterproof boots and big coats.
I was wearing bright summer sandals on my feet because I had only gone to town to post some packages and had forgotten that it was pattern day until I saw all the activity. I did notice that some of the people coming back the road were amused and dismayed in equal amounts by my choice of footwear. I, however, was gladdened to know that people were coming back! Now at least I knew that this was a “there and back” journey, not a tramp across endless terrain towards who knew what! I am exaggerating here a little, I think!
People nodded towards each other, and me, when they met on the road but other than that a silence pervaded which was very peaceful. After some time we turned off the road and into a field, however it looked to be fairly dry so I followed along.
I decided that if the going got very wet I could then decide to either turn back or get very wet feet, as it happened I didn’t have to make that decision because the ground, although very soft in places, had a well worn track and I was able to keep my socks dry.
We were some distance now from any roads and it was so lovely to be following along in quiet procession, just walking. I had no destination in mind because I had no idea where we going. It was obvious to me now that we were to eventually come to a well because of the empty bottles so many people were carrying and those coming back had full bottles, beyond that I was in blissful ignorance.
It was a beautiful day, cold and clear, with a slight threat of rain to the west. The fields were silent other than the occasional bird song and the sometimes tick of an electric fence hidden behind briers to one side of us as we walked.
Then I could see a turnstile in the hedge at the far end of the field that we were in and realised that was our destination. Leitrim farmers are not in the habit of erecting turnstiles in their hedgerows. Once through there I found myself in a little garden with a statue of St. Bridget and a path which I dutifully followed until I came to a well.
I decided that in honour of the triple goddess I would walk sun-wise three times around the well before drinking a beautiful mug-full of deliciously cold water from the well, using the mug placed there for that purpose. I stayed there for a wee while, drinking in the scene after drinking the water. There were lots of daffodil bulbs, bravely sticking out their first greenery, dotted around alongside the path, under the trees. It will be a lovely place to visit once the daffodils are in bloom.
The rain finally started to fall softly as I neared the graveyard on the return journey. There were still as many people heading towards the well and a fresh bundle of Bridget’s crosses was being left at the shrine by a local woman. The crosses are made locally and left at the shrine on Bridget’s day with a sign asking for donations which this year are going towards a hospice.
I got into my van and headed for home, passing many people still walking out from town, ready for their spirit adventure.