Brigid: Matron of Poetry and Smithcraft

Following our conversation with Brigid about the meaning of Equinox, we gather for dinner back at our hotel. The mood is somewhat subdued, the conversation sporadic, touching on the sudden chill of the evening, the earthy tang of the Guinness, our plans for the evening. Within walking distance, there is a poetry reading at eight o’clock, featuring the works of Irish writers of the 20th century. I do not say it to my companions, but I think poetry might be a welcome release from Brigid’s intense teaching and catechizing. I am still smarting from her comment to the fox that we have a great deal to learn…

Just before eight, we make our way to the pub for the readings. We crowd in, some of us clustering around small tables of dark well-polished wood, others perching on the high bar stools. Though I feel a little guilty about it, I am looking forward to an evening without thinking about Brigid. Minutes later, I hear Irish poet Anne Frances O’Reilly, the evening’s host, say that the poetry will be dedicated to Brigid, patron or rather matron, of poetry, healing and smithcraft…

Anne begins with her own poem to Brigid, as recorded on her CD “Breath Song”.

Brigid

These words will never carve
your image out of bog oak
but that is what they want to do
to dig down into the moist wetness
to touch the layers of centuries
that have made you
woman, goddess, saint
to see your shape emerge intact
from the dark earth.

My instruments are crude for such a work
the bog resistant to intruders
as an ancient tribal memory
in its dark and secret places.

But I must search out these roots
this memory as vital as breath.
I must drag this ancient oak
from the centre of the bog.

I will wait as I must
for the time of dryness where I can see
the shape of what you were and what you are.

The fine coat of resin will preserve your beautiful shape intact
and I will call on you great woman
to grace me with a golden branch and tinkling bells.

And I will polish you then with images of
sun and moon, cows, sheep, serpents, vultures,
bags, bells, baths and sacred fires
so that you become a fiery arrow
and breathe life into the mouth of dead winter
as it is these days in the lives of women
whose spirits have ceased to quicken.

O beautiful vessel still intact
where we have unearthed you,
remind us of your many manifestations
and let us smile again in memory
of when doddering Mel pronounced you bishop
or your cloak spread over the green fields of Kildare.
You who turned back the streams of war
whose name invoked stilled monsters in the seas
whose cross remains a resplendent, golden sparkling flame
come again from the dark bog and forge us anew.

 

The following morning, we arrive at the place we now think of as “Brigid’s Garden” under umbrellas that offer little shelter from a wetness that blows towards us from the side. Balancing umbrellas with one hand, spreading jackets or raincoats with the other, we sit on the wet grass.

Brigid is laughing, the raindrops caught in her long hair like sparkling jewels. The sunlight radiates in the drops creating prisms of light, and soon the rain has vanished as though lapped up by their thirst.

“Did you enjoy the poetry last evening?” Brigid asks.

There is a buzz of response, nods of agreement, a few of us quoting remembered lines and images from WB Yeats, from Patrick Kavanagh, from Seamus Heaney.

“Anne O’Reilly said you are the matron of poetry, Brigid,” Elizabeth says. Herself a poet, she then ventures to ask, “How did that come about?”

“How did I come to be matron of poetry?” Brigid echoes, then adds, with great seriousness, “you have seen and read, of course, my collected poems? No? Well, there’s a good reason for that.” She laughs suddenly. Lightly. It eases the tension. Each of us had been fearing we’d missed something important. “I’ve never written even one verse,” she admits.

“Let me tell something of the role of poets in ancient Ireland. They were honoured along with kings and priests as part of a triad of leaders. Poets played a role in the inauguration and the legitimizing of kings. Should a king not live up to what was required of him, the poets could overthrow him.

“The last time you were here, we spoke of the Celtic year that begins with Samhain, as the dark time of the year approaches. You may recall my saying that for ancient people life was understood to begin in darkness. For this reason, the training of poets for a culture that was mostly oral demanded that they spend many hours in complete darkness memorizing the ancient tales and the wisdom lore of Ireland. Because they had faced this darkness and at the same time, their own inner darkness, the poets were prepared to call the community to integrity, to challenge unjust rulers, and false decisions, to defend the weak.

“Now you already know that my name goes back millennia to a time when it meant High or Exalted One. In early Irish law there is mention of a Brigh Ambui who was a woman, an author of wisdom and prudence among the men of Erin. From her were named the incantations called Briathra Brighi by which the poet’s mind was made prophetic.

“The poets of Ancient Ireland had three significant duties: intuitive knowing, whereby they accessed wisdom from the collective unconscious and from within their own bodies; composing without thinking, or on the spot, out of this deep source of wisdom, their store of knowledge and the poetic gift that brings the knowing forth; and the illumination of song.”

We are silent, taking this in, expanding our understanding of the art of poetry, the task of poetry.

 

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