Ancient Celebrations – Part 9 – Imbolc/ Imbolg

Brigid, along with The Dagda was the first born of the Children of Danu and as such is a fitting symbol of Imbolc/ Imbolg, which possibly comes from the Old Irish i mbolc meaning “in the belly”, and refers to the pregnancy of ewes. Imbolc is celebrated traditionally from sunset on 31 January to 1 February, since the day started at sunset.

The alignment of some ancient monuments, such as the Mound of the Hostages on the Hill of Tara, indicate that Imbolc has been celebrated in Ireland for possibly 12,000 years. The inner chamber is aligned with the rising sun of both Imbolc and Samhain.

In Gaelic Ireland, Imbolc was the feis or festival marking the beginning of spring, during which great feasts were held. Celebrations involved lighting a hearth fire at home, candles or a bonfire. This lighting of candles and fires represented the return of warmth as the sun slowly increased in strength.

Sacred wells were visited at Imbolc, and participants would pray for health while walking sunwise around the well, representing the womb of Danu, who is connected with sacred water. Sacrificial offerings, such as coins were placed in the well and clooties (small pieces of cloth from old clothing) are dipped in the water. They are then tied to a branch of a sacred tree in honour of Bile, the great oak. Water from the well was drawn from the well and participants would later use this to sprinkle and bless the home, family members, livestock and fields.

In recent times, Imbolc is celebrated by Irish Christians as Saint Brigid’s Day, but the festival is based on Brigid in her role as a fertility goddess. On Imbolc Eve, Brigid visits deserving households and blesses them.

Brigid represents the transition from the dark season of winter into spring and her presence was very welcome at this time of year. Families would have a special meal on Imbolc Eve, including included food such as colcannon (mashed potatoes with kale or cabbage), dumplings and barmbrack (round bread). Some of the food and drink would be set aside for Brigid.

Brigid was invited into the home and a bed be made for her. A family member, representing Brigid, would circle the home three times carrying rushes and knock on the door requesting to be let in. On the third knock they are welcomed in, the meal is had, and the rushes are then strewn on the floor as a bed for Brigid. A white wand, usually made of birch, would be set by the bed, representing the wand Brigid uses to make the vegetation grow again.

The following morning a Brídeóg (a doll like representation of Brigid made from reeds and clad in bits of cloth, shells and flowers) would be paraded around the community by young women.

For a personal perspective of Imbolc/ Imbolg see Sean Twomey’s article Imbolg: An Lá Nua agus Tús Nua

Brideog, National Museum of Ireland, Kildare Street, Dublin

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