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Breath of Life: The Triple Flame of Brigid

by Kathryn Price NicDhna and Treasa N Chonchobhair

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Published by An Chuallacht Ghaol Naofa.


www.gaolnaofa.com
Published 18 January 2013.
First edition.
Copyright 2013 Kathryn Price NicDhna and Treasa N Chonchobhair.
All Rights Reserved.
Published in the United States of America.
Typography and interior layout by Aestas Designs.
Special thanks to Annie Loughlin, Pl MacAmhlaoibh, and Sky Davis for the initial readthrough and feedback.
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Introduction
Brigit badach,
Baid na fine,
Siur Rgan nime,

Victorious Brigit,
Glory of kindred,
Queen of Heaven's sister,

Nr in duine,
Eslind luige,
Lethan breo.

Noble person,
Dangerous oath [for false swearers],
Far-rising flame.

Ban-laig, fili, breithem,


Mumme Godel,
Riar na n-iged,
Obel ecnai,

Healer, poet, brehon,


Fostermother of the Gael,
Support of the strangers,
Wisdom's spark,

Ingen Danu,
Duine allach,
Brigit badach,
Bethad beo.

Daughter of Danu,
High-minded person,
Victorious Brigit,
Life's living flame.1

In Gaol Naofa2 we recognise and honour multiple manifestations of the Flame of Brigid.
Based in the Old Irish lore, in the wisdom found in the living Gaelic traditions, 3 and what we have
found in our own experiences, we see her sacred flame as threefold, and illustrated as either three
flames rising from a cauldron, or as three concentric circles:
1. The sacred, cloistered flame which is tended by women only (and preferably, women who
are considered "virgin" by ancient Irish standards). This is the central source where Brigid's
power is maintained and focused for the benefit of the community. The outside of the
sanctuary where women, sworn flametenders, tend the flame in the traditional manner
may be guarded by men, or by warrior women, but men may not enter the enclosure.
Tradition illustrates that it is dangerous for men to trespass this boundary and as a
community dedicated to cultural preservation, we respect and maintain this tradition.
2. The hearth flame, which is tended by the bean a tighe ("woman of the house") or fear an tighe
("man of the house") who kindles the household flame and repeats prayers and blessings

2
3

Slightly adapted from the traditional Old Irish. A copy of the original can be found in: Meyer, Miscellanea Hibernica,
1916, p45.

"Brigit badach" Badach can also be translated as, "triumphant, triumphal, prevailing; preeminent, having
many outstanding qualities, gifted." o, ( baid, Thurn. Gr. 349. See riu xxii 50 ).

"Siur Rgan nime Queen of Heaven's Sister;" Original line: " Siur Rg nime King of Heaven's sister."

"Ban-laig, fili, breithem, - Healer, poet, brehon (judge, dispenser of justice, law-speaker);" Original line: " Ro-siacht
nobnem" "Holy Heaven she reached."

"Ingen Danu" "Daughter of Danu;" Original line: "Ingen Dubthaig "Dubthach's daughter."

For more on translating and adapting traditional prayers, see " Prayer in Gaelic Polytheism."
Our Gaelic Polytheist community, and our tradition of r nDigh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach or Ar Digh-Beatha IomaDhiadhach Ghidhealach. ("Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway" in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, respectively).
The "living traditions" are "the folkloric customs, songs, tales and beliefs found in the areas where Gaelic, Irish and
Manx are still spoken, and where these traditions have been handed down most faithfully." Kennedy, Gaelic Nova
Scotia: An Economic, Cultural, and Social Impact Study, 2002, p12; 13.
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over it for the protection and well-being of their family, as well as petitioning Brigid on
behalf of the family. The hearth flame is usually tended by women, but is not off-limits to
men if that man prepares food for his household and attends to other hearth-related
activities; unlike the cloistered flame, there are no known dangers to men who take on this
householder, hearthkeeper role.
3. The community, festival flame which is lit by whichever individual or group is appropriate
for that particular ceremony or gathering. Sometimes this ceremonial role is most suited to
a sworn flametender, and other times to the head of the hosting household, and at other
times to a person who specialises in the lore of the different ceremonial fires. At some of the
large community gatherings it is historically and traditionally built by other configurations
of people, such as a group of nine married men of good character. As there are many types
of community ceremonies and festivals, someone who maintains this knowledge for the
community is also taking on a sacred role in cultural preservation.
In Gaol Naofa, we refer to our tradition as Digh Bheatha Ildiach is Gaelach or Digh-Beatha
Ioma-Dhiadhach Ghidhealach ("Gaelic Polytheist Lifeway" in Irish and Scottish Gaelic, respectively).
For us, as it is with the other living traditions with whom we feel kinship, spirituality is not just
about attending services. It is a lifeway, a way of life where traditional spiritual and cultural
practices are interwoven with every moment of our day. It is about how we see the world, who we
are in the world, and what choices and priorities we make.

The Sanctity of the Centre and the Flame


Within the poem Diambad messe bad r ril ("If I were an Illustrious King") exists the Old Irish
saying: "is maith cech dl dia ticc sd" or "any place that produces peace is good."4 Intrinsically, within
Gaelic tradition, the sacred centre can be seen as a meeting point between the mundane world and
the divine, a place where communication and peace can occur. The centre provides a focus, a place
where ritual actions and words speak to the gods clearly, and where we might also hear them. As
stated in Celtic Heritage, the Irish have a riddle: "Where is the middle of the world?" The answer is:
"Here, where I am."5 In a nutshell (a hazel nutshell, of course), the middle of the world is relative to
your position in it, and so we might see that ultimately the sacred centre is wherever we might be.
In that sense, anywhere can be seen as a sacred place, and certainly we might see the d ocus an-d
("gods and un-gods") in the land, sea and sky all around us. We are never far from the Otherworld.
When speaking about the Flame of Brigid, we can look at each concentric circle as a centre
in and of itself: i.e., the festival flame is the centre of a ritual, the hearth flame the centre of a

4
5

Sengodelc. Translation by Dennis King.


Rees, Celtic Heritage: Ancient Tradition in Ireland and Wales, 1961, p187.
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household/family, and the cloistered flame the centre of a shrine and a community. Dorothy Bray
speaks of Brigid's fire as a flame that burns but does not destroy, serving as a symbol for the
continuation of pre-Christian polytheistic beliefs into Christianity (through Brigid's arts of poetry,
healing and smithcraft).6 Fire's ability to create, destroy, transform, and inspire has always
fascinated the Gaels and we perceive it to be something divine and otherworldly. In reconstructed,
Gaelic Polytheistic cosmology, fire is perceived to be the centre of land, sea, and sky.
Fire has special religio-magical traits attributed to it and is an
essential element in Gaelic rites and rituals it represents the
presence of the d ocus an-d, is a symbol of divine inspiration (or
imbas), and in the old Irish roundhouses it was literally the centre of
the home. In modern houses, if one doesn't have a fireplace or wood
stove, then it also represents the concept of the family's hearth fire,
even if that hearth is the shared spiritual identity of the kin group, and
the kitchen stove and the family gathered around the kitchen table.
In our ceremonies we meet around the sacred fire, we make
offerings to the spirits through the fire, and we use fire as one of the
Photo: 2006 Kathryn Price
NicDhna. All Rights Reserved.

ways

to sain, a traditional way of protecting and blessing our

households, shrines, and people. (Sain is Scots; derived from the Old

Irish word sn.)7


Trecheng Breth Fne, or the Triads of Ireland, list Kildare (home of the St. Brigid cult) as "The
Heart of Ireland" and thus we see her eternal flame as the heart of the Gaelic Polytheist community
and the Gaelic continuum as a whole.

Cloistered Flame
A Bhrghde, Teine Bhrghde (O Brigid, Flame of Brigid)
Blest be the shrine, blest be the flame,
Blest be the people all.
Who is that on the ground?
The Spirits of the Land
Who is that beside me?
The Ancestors who light the way
Who is that at the back of my head?
Brigid herself,
Saining, encircling, guiding, protecting.
Who is that before us?
The Ancestors, the women who walked this land before us
Who is that behind us?

6
7

Bray, "St. Brigit and the Fire from Heaven," Etudes Celtiques #29, 1992, p111.
Black, The Gaelic Otherworld, 2005, p211.
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The Ancestors, the women who walked this path before us


Who is that beside us always?
The Ancestors, the women whose lives made our lives possible.8
In the centre, the sacred flame rises. Brigid herself rises, gazing out over the shrine, the
households, the community, the land. Strengthened by our focus, her blessings pour out over the
world. This flame is the source, the centre. Fuelled by devotion, by commitment, by years; by
decades, by lifetimes, by generations of women joined in a line down through time. We hold this
flame sacred and protected, so all the other flames may be strong as well. Each in its place, by the
wisdom of our ancestors. Protecting and focusing this flame, we hold the centre for our
community, for our people, for the world. The sacredness of the women who carry this
commitment surrounds us, upholds us; the power of women devoting themselves to guiding and
guarding the community. With the power of tradition, we carry this commitment, this sacredness;
we carry the sacred flame down through time and forward into the future.
In medieval Kildare, Ireland, nineteen nuns dedicated their lives to tending a sacred,
cloistered flame in honour of St. Brigid. Each nun took a turn to tend the flame for the duration of a
day, and on the twentieth day the flame was left for Brigid herself to tend. As the historian
Giraldus Cambrensis reported in his Topographia, "Each takes her turn for a single night tending
the fire, but when the twentieth night comes, the nineteenth nun places a log near the fire and says,
'Brigid, tend your fire. This is your night.' In the morning, the wood has been burnt as usual and
the fire still blazes."9 After that day, the cycle would begin again, with each woman maintaining a
regular shift on this twenty-day cycle.
At no point was a man allowed to enter this cloister where the sacred flame was kept and
tended to by the nuns; to do so might put that man's very life in danger. Again, from Cambrensis,
"Brigid's fire is surrounded by a circular hedge which no man may cross. And if by chance some
presumptuous male does enter, as certain foolish ones have attempted, he does not escape
unpunished. ... In Kildare there was a certain archer from the family of Richard who leapt over the
hedge and blew on Brigid's fire. He jumped back immediately and went mad. Thereafter he would
go around blowing in peoples' faces and saying, 'See! That's how I blew on Brigid's fire.' He went
around to all the houses blowing on whatever fire he might find and saying the same words.
Eventually he was captured and bound, but asked to be led to the nearest water. When he was
brought there his mouth was so dry that he drank excessively, so that his belly ruptured and he
died still in their hands. Another man began to cross the hedge but was restrained by his friends
while only his lower leg had crossed the boundary. That foot immediately shriveled up, and for the
rest of his life he remained lame and feeble."10
Many Irish historians believe this tradition of women-only flametending orders to be a
8

Adapted from traditional smooring and kindling prayers, including "Beannachd Smalaidh [88] Blessing of the
Smooring" from Carmina Gadelica, Volume I.
9 Quotes from Sec. 90 From Giraldus Cambrensis' Topgraphia Hibernie, trans. Philip Freeman, posted here.
10 Giraldus Cambrensis' Topographia Hibernie (trans. Philip Freeman), in Koch and Carey's The Celtic Heroic Age, 1995,
p267-268. See also p54 of this pdf.
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remnant of a pre-Christian practice, much like the Vestal Virgins of ancient Rome who tended a
sacred, cloistered flame in honour of Vesta, and which also had the same stipulations on men.
The sacred flame of Brigid was rekindled on Imbolc 1993 in Kildare by Mary Teresa Cullen
of the Brigidine Sisters and has been tended ever since by the women at Solas Bhride. Women have
travelled to Ireland to light candles from this flame, and over the years it has been quietly passed
from woman to woman, primarily among women sworn to Brigid. In 2006, a perpetual flame was
also lit in the town square in Kildare. While the town flame is associated with the cloistered flame
of Kildare, by the fact of its circumstance and location it has now become a community flame, still
sacred, but transforming into a different aspect of the breath of Brigid.
Many polytheists view tending a flame as a means to honour Brigid, and numerous
"orders" often made up of both polytheists and Christians, and not always with a Celtic or
traditional focus have popped up over the years. In Gaol Naofa, we have sworn flametenders
who guard our branch of the Kildare flame, which was lit from that of the nuns' years before the
flame was lit in the town square. A flame dedicated to Brigid was also kindled separately on
Imbolc 1993, by the Daughters of the Flame order in Canada; a few years later, another flame was
brought over from Kildare and merged with the flame of DotF. While we have some overlap in
membership with Daughters of the Flame, our flame was brought over from Ireland separately,
before that of DotF. We are not certain, but it's possible our flame was the first brought from
Kildare to the North American continent.
In establishing modern flametending orders for Gaelic Polytheists, we have had to face a
number of questions that were more simple for our distant ancestors; namely, how marriage and
virginity were defined then, versus now, and what aspects of the nuns practice do and do not seem
to be continuations of those of the polytheistic women who preceded them. In establishing
contemporary groups, we also face the challenge of our small numbers, and have to ask whether
we can meet all of the standards held by our ancestors. As a traditional lifeway, we tend to draw
the line in a stricter manner than many modern groups, and have at times chosen not to have a
certain function in our community filled, rather than redefine our ancestors' ways or have
positions filled by those who are clearly unqualified or otherwise inappropriate. Yet at the same
time, we do observe that there are some liminal areas. (And as people of Gaelic heritage, where
would we be without our liminal zones?)
In Old Irish legal tracts, any woman who has given birth to children, or has had recent
sexual contact that could result in pregnancy, is considered married. Marriage laws in that era were
all about responsibility for any children born of a sexual union, as well as division of shared
property should there be a divorce.11 "Playful mating" that could not result in children was not seen
as marriage. In the medieval era, it was fairly common for widows to join holy orders after their
child-rearing duties were done. We do not know if widows who had borne children before taking
11 "The brehon laws determine exactly those who may contract a proper marriage and under what conditions. The word
for 'marriage' is lnamnus and can be translated fairly accurately but awkwardly as a social connection for the
purpose of procreation." Power, Sex and Marriage in Ancient Ireland, 1976, p25.
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vows were ever able to regain the status of "virgins," so it is unclear whether any widows tended
the cloistered flame. Cambrensis states that the flame was tended by "the nuns and holy women."12
It is not clear who Cambrensis means by "holy women," if these are women who are not nuns. It
might refer to virgins in the order who have not yet taken formal vows. It could possibly indicate
village wisewomen, who may or may not have been Christians, and who continued to offer their
healing and spiritual services even as Christianity was taking hold in Ireland. 13 Or perhaps this
could refer to other laywomen who participated in the life of the church without having taken the
veil. Laywomen could be widows who would have sought refuge in the church for safety. As far as
we know there is no historical prohibition on widows with grown children becoming
flametenders, but at this point we simply don't have data to know if there is a historical precedent
for it. What does seem clear is that not every woman in a religious order tended the flame itself, as
some were needed to perform support functions for the flametenders.
What we have found from our own experience is that commitment to tending the cloistered
flame is a type of primary relationship. Women whose primary relationship is to children and a
husband have a different focus, and a different energy in their bodies and spirits than do those
with different commitments. The mothering energy that a married woman devotes to her
immediate family, a sworn flametender gives to nurturing the spiritual community of women and
maintaining the flametending traditions.
As modern life has more reproductive and lifestyle options than were available to our
ancestors, we do feel there is now a bit of a liminal area with the idea of "married" vs "virgin," but
understanding where that line is drawn requires an assessment of a woman's energy and way of
life. Women who are married to other women may still be in harmony with the "virgin" energy,
while others in a lesbian marriage, especially if that marriage includes children, may feel their
primary energy is for mothering their immediate family, even if they did not give birth to the
children they are co-parenting. Women who have some degree of sexual interaction with men but
are not risking pregnancy may in some cases be able to tend the flame, but this is more rare. What
we have found is it depends on the type of man and the type of relationship. One of our
flametenders went from being predominantly lesbian to being married to a masculine man who
brought children to the relationship. His energy, and the marriage, changed her energy; so she
chose to give up her shift to a single, childless, lesbian member of our community. When the
marriage ended, with no children born of the union, her energy changed again and she was able to
resume her duties as a flametender. Others have found that a childless, egalitarian relationship
with an effeminate man who is unable to produce children does not change their energy

12 "At Kildare, in Leinster, celebrated for the glorious Brigit ... is the fire of St. Brigit, which is reported to never go out.
Not that it cannot be extinguished, but the nuns and holy women tend and feed it." - Giraldus Cambrensis,
Topographia Hibernie, p53 of this pdf.
13 "A bean feasa (Gaeilge, "woman of knowledge or wisdom; a wise-woman") harbours the gifts of prophecy and secondsight; she also deals in herbal cures and healing. The bean feasa ... is a source of help in times of crisis, sought out by
those afflicted with misfortune, illness, or accidentsoften as a last resort. Unlike healers from Scotland or Isle of
Man, the bean feasa appears to be specifically an aged, and usually unmarried, woman." - Loughlin et al, " Rowan and
Red Thread: Magic and Witchcraft in Gaelic Cultures ," 2012, p22.
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significantly enough to bar them from tending the flame (though they of course maintain the
boundaries of not letting any kind of man near the flame itself, and having no sexual contact with
even that type of man for a significant period of time before, during, and after their shift). 14 As in
other situations where ceremonial roles are taken up, it is not only or even primarily about selfdefinition; it is also about how the spiritual community sees the person and experiences their
energy in ceremony. We know that people who are totally on their own can get into difficult places,
and this kind of work demands the checks and balances, the daily feedback, of a healthy
community of peers and Elders.
In Gaol Naofa, the flametending orders are sovereign while they are a part of the larger
community, as a small, intimate group, only they have the right to decide which women are
appropriate and in harmony with their order.
While the nuns of Kildare have now also lit a community flame, the nuns themselves are an
all-women order. It is in this spirit, in respecting the living and ancient tradition of priestesses, as
well as the safety of our members, that we keep this inner circle for women only. In some cases
men have provided a supporting role for women flametenders, but that does not mean that they
have entered the enclosure or tended the flame themselves.
Despite the clear tradition of restricting the flametending orders to women, and particular
kinds of women at that, we have found that there is a role for men and warrior women in
relationship to the cloistered flame. This duty is in physically and spiritually guarding the
sanctuary so the flametenders can do their work without interference, as well as taking over any
household duties for that woman so she can concentrate on her shift. The men and women who
take on this duty tend to be liminal types, as well. For instance, we have seen a number of
instances where warrior women who are considered virgins or widows by Old Irish standards, but
are sworn to the warrior goddess, the Morrgan, also have a kinship with Brigid. Usually, due to
their primary focus on the work demanded by the Morrgan, they are more suited as guardians
than flametenders. But as their status does not prohibit them from entering the enclosure, they are
uniquely suited for carrying messages or items back and forth between the flametender on shift
and those outside the shrine. Similarly, the men drawn to guarding the shrine tend to be humble,
gentle men with a deep regard for the sanctity of women's space, who see nothing shameful about
taking up a woman's household duties so she can tend the flame. We have had the experience of
women tending the cloistered flame while male members of our community stand outside, with
their backs to the shrine, and build an energetic wall of protection. This has made our cloistered
flame burn even stronger and brighter.
In classic Gaelic fashion, we have a liminal mystery: strengthening the edge also
strengthens the centre, and a strong centre builds the strength of the whole community.
Sworn flametenders must remember that once they make that commitment to Brigid and to

14 The brehon laws state that a "barren" man cannot contract a legal marriage. Powers, Sex and Marriage in Ancient
Ireland, 1976, p25.
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their order, to some extent every flame they light is closely connected to the cloistered flame. This
is especially the case on the day of their flametending shift. Some communities have a flametender
build the festival flame for some rites but if it is her flametending day, that will make whatever
flame she lights a cloistered flame of sorts. So if it is a ceremony that includes men, she will
probably have to not participate in festivals on shift day; the only possible exception to this being if
she gets another woman to take her shift for her that day. The ideal we strive for is that the flame in
the shrine should be eternal and perpetual, and only left unattended on the day that Brigid herself
tends the flame.
In Gaol Naofa, liturgy and specifics of flametending rites are shared only in person, in
private, with other sworn flametenders. Therefore we have only discussed generalities here, and
included traditional (or closely adapted from traditional) liturgy that is already in the public
domain.

Hearth Flame
Beannaich, a Bhrde, an timhteachd,
Is gach neach ta tmh innt a nochd;
Beannaich, a Bhrde, mo chairdean
Anns gach it am bheil an torch;

Bless Thou, O Brde, the dwelling


And each who rests herein this night;
Bless Thou, O Brde, my dear ones
In every place wherein they sleep;

Air an oidhche th'ann a nochd,


Agus air gach aon oidhche;
Air an latha th'ann an diugh,
Agus air gach aon latha.

In the night that is to-night,


And every single night;
In the day that is to-day,
And every single day.15

In the Iron Age, the hearth (tellach) was situated in the direct centre of the roundhouse and
served as a source of light, a place for the food to be cooked, and a source of warmth through the
bitter winter nights. The hearth, located alongside the clithe or ridge pole, would be fairly large or
else the residents might be viewed as inhospitable. Before the stove was widespread, the hearth
was an integral part of daily life. It was the centre of all domestic and social activities, functioning
as both kitchen and living room. No matter how small a house might have been, there is always
room to sit around the fire. This is the space where stories are told, fiddles are stroked, prayers are
recited and voices raised in song; it's no surprise to find that the deity with the closest connection
to the hearth is Brigid.
The hearth is also a symbol of hospitality. The best spot around the fire is always given to
15 Song 338, Carmichael, Carmina Gadelica Volume 3, 1942, p356-357. Not in copyright. Dh has been changed to Bhrde,
The last word of the first line was rdrach, which is given as "eight-oared galley" according to Dwelly, and there's no
mention of "dwelling" as an alternative meaning. I guess it could work in a poetic sense (people talk about sailing in
relation to sleep, right?), but this doesn't seem to be the most appropriate choice so I've changed it to timhteachd,
"home, abode, dwelling." An alternative is dachaigh but timhteachd seemed more apt given the title of the prayer.
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the bacach, or beggar, and honoured guests. Here the bacach warms himself, is served dinner and is
offered a place for the night. When hosting no guests, the seats flanking the fire are reserved for the
man and woman of the house. Beside these special seats there was usually nooks which kept the
man's pipe and the lady's knitting or sewing.
Simply looking at the construction of old houses in the Gaelic lands gives evidence to the
hearth being a focal point. When talking about other rooms in the older houses, they were referred
to by their position to the hearth. "Above the room" was the location of anyone upstairs, while
"below the room" was the locality of someone in the kitchen.
The turf fire (teine) was only extinguished on Bealtaine, which was when the fire was
renewed with flame from the communal bonfire, originally said to be the bonfire lit under the
auspices of the druids as stated in Sanas Cormaic. The rest of the time the fire was never put out,
but each night it was simply subdued, or smoored, by the woman of the house (sometimes referred
to as the bean a tighe). It is a matter of pride and superstition not to let the flame die out even in the
height of summer, and many households could boast that their hearth had remained alight for
several generations even centuries. If the fire did die out, it was said in Evans that "the soul goes
out of the people of the house."16
I will sain and smoor the hearth
As Brigid would sain and smoor.
The encompassment of Brigid,
On the fire and on the floor,
And on the household all.
Who is on the land around us?
Fairest Brigid and Her daughters.
The fire in the poets head,
The tongue of truth aflame.
Grandmother spirits watching the hearth
Till white day comes to the fire.17
The bean a tighe, according to Lynch-Brennan, is a very broad term that covers both a single,
widowed or married woman in charge of a household but also says that the English words like
housewife or homemaker are too narrow to be used as definitions. 18 Prayers are recited by the bean
a tighe each night while smooring the fire and many examples still exist today. Awakening, or
kindling the fire, is also her job every morning with prayers accompanying that ritual as well. The
head of the household also traditionally leads the family ritual for Brigid on L Fhile Brde, where
Brigid is invited into the home, and the saining of the home on Hogmanay, where the smoke of
juniper is used to spiritually cleanse and bless the house for the New Year.
The hearth fire has strong connections to the all of the seasonal festivals of the Gaels, not
just Bealtaine. At Samhain, a chair is reserved by the hearth and plate of dinner set out for the dead

16 Evans, Irish Folk Ways, 2000, p59.


17 Prayer adapted from Carmina Gadelica, Volume I, #85, "Smaladh an Teine Smooring the Fire."
18 Lynch-Brennan, The Irish Bridget, 2009, p5.
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while the household sleeps. On L Fhile Brde, effigies of Bride are placed beside the turf fire and
in the morning ashes omens of her presence are looked for, and at Lnasa, the first harvest like
every meal would be cooked in the hearth.
No evidence survives but it is reasonable to assume that the hearth served as a domestic
shrine for the ancient Gaels. The act of ritually linking the hearth fires of Ireland with those of the
druids, and the community, certainly seems to signify the hearth's importance both in domestic
and social life, as well in ceremonial life, and so strong was this concept that even after the druids
were gone, the local priest took over the role of providing the fire for the rest of the community to
take their kindling and relight their hearths at Bealtaine.
With the role of fire and the hearth in the Gaelic household, we can begin to understand
why it is considered to also be the spiritual centre of the home. Family and community are
considered extensions of the hearth, and indeed are the metaphysical hearth of our Gaelic
Polytheist community. Within the Gaelic worldview, family in all its diverse and extended forms
is the most important and fundamental unit of Gaelic Polytheism and of society in general.
While it is possible to have a close-knit family built on shared moral values in today's world, for
the most part modernism, mobility, and capitalism have severely damaged the traditional Gaelic
extended family and land-based community made up of interconnected, extended families living
on their ancestral landbase. With the strain of modern living full of its constant drudging just to
make ends meet the majority of families are in some way or another in a state of dysfunction.
Alienation between familial members is rampant. Making money to clothe and feed our families is
important, but it is a very different way of life than that of our ancestors who accomplished these
tasks hand in hand with their families, with the spiritual interwoven with every facet of one's
work. The need for emotional support, meaningful work, and shared spiritual experience within
our kin group is a basic human need.
Each individual within a family carries the muirer (Old Irish, "charge; care; burden") of that
family. That is the duty of providing care for the family or household in the sense of doing one's
share. Our extended families (whether they be of birth or choice) deserve our loyalty, duty, honour,
protection, and concern. Belongings can be stolen, hobbies or interests fade away, and jobs lost;
thus our family should always come first. That being said, since we live in a modern society and
do not participate in anachronism, families today look different than those of the ancient Gaels. We
do not live in a feudalistic society.
Both family and community ensure the preservation and continuation of our cultural,
historic, and spiritual heritage, and it is the medium through which such things are expressed. A
Gaelic family or community is rooted firmly within the worldview, cultural institutions, traditions,
religion and values of the Gaelic people. Culture is honoured as that which provides not only
cohesion but collective strength and cooperation. Family and community bestows our identity and
defines us.

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Festival Flame
I will kindle the fire today
In the presence of my ancestors,
In the presence of the spirits of nature,
In the presence of Brigid herself,
Without malice, without jealousy, without envy,
Without fear, without terror of any one under the sun,
But Blessed Brigid to shield me.
My shield is compassion,
Truth is my shield,
The guidance and warding
Of the Most High.
A Bhrghde, kindle in my heart within
A flame of love for my kindred,
A flame of love for my community,
A flame of love for the world,
For the harmony of creation.
For the justice that brings balance,
For the balance that brings truth,
For the truth that brings compassion.
For the smallest, for the largest,
For the fiercest, for the most gentle,
Compassion and justice,
Love and balance,
The power of Brigid is with us,
Without beginning, without end.19
Ramsay of Ochtertyre describes the building of one of the festival fires, "The night before,
all the fires in the country were carefully extinguished, and next morning the materials for exciting
the sacred fires were prepared. The most primitive method seems to be that which was used in the
islands of Skye, Mull and Tiree. A well-seasoned plank of oak was procured, in the midst of which
a hole was bored. A wimble of the same timber was then applied, the end of which they fitted to
the hole. But in some parts of the mainland the machinery was different. They used a frame of
greenwood of a square form, in the centre of which was an axle-tree. In some places three times
three persons, in others three times nine, were required for turning round by turns the axle-tree or
wimble. If any of them had been guilty of murder, adultery, theft or other atrocious crime, it was
imagined either that the fire would not kindle, or that it would be devoid of its usual virtue. So
soon as any sparks were emitted by means of violent friction, they applied a species of agaric
which grows on birch trees, and is very combustible. This fire had the appearance of being
immediately derived from heaven, and manifold were the virtues ascribed to it. They esteemed it a
preservative against witchcraft and a sovereign remedy against malignant diseases, both in the
human species and in cattle; and by it the strongest poisons were supposed to have their nature
19 Adapted from "Blessing of the Kindling," Carmina Gadelica #82.
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changed."20
Martin Martin also describes the building of the "need fire" in Scotland: "The inhabitants
here did also make use of a fire called tin-egin, i.e., a forced fire, or fire of necessity, which they used
as an antidote against the plague or murrain in cattle; and it was performed thus: all the fires in the
parish were extinguished, and then eighty-one married men, being thought the necessary number
for effecting this design, took two great planks of wood, and nine of them were employed by turns,
who by their repeated efforts rubbed one of the planks against the other until the heat thereof
produced fire; and from this forced fire each family is supplied with new fire, which is no sooner
kindled than a pot full of water is quickly set on it, and afterwards sprinkled upon the people
infected with the plague, or upon the cattle that have the murrain. And this they all say they find
successful by experience. It was practiced in the mainland, opposite to the south of Skye, within
these thirty years."21
In all of these cases we see the community coming together for the healing of a community
problem, and the necessity of certain types of people taking the ceremonial roles for the ceremony
to be successful. Another theme, seen also in ancient Ireland, is the importance of dousing the
individual, household fires, then relighting them from the community, festival flame. In this way
every household is blessed by the combined efforts of the community, joined in ceremony and
communal purpose, connected to the same spiritual centre.
The third common thread with the festival fires in Gaelic areas is that they are built in a
special physical manner as well not just lit by a match, but built by friction. In our
contemporary communities, this has led us to cultivate the talent of building a fire with a bow
drill. If the community does not have eighty-one married men of good character, perhaps nine men
utilising this method will have to suffice. In a small community or household celebration of the
festival, perhaps three or even one person with a bow drill, using traditional prayers and materials
and supported by the songs and prayers of their group, is an adaptation that can be used until the
community is larger.
We have been encouraging either men or women who are drawn to the festival flame to
study this lore, and to develop their skills with the bow drill and other traditional methods. We
encourage these people to learn to carry the knowledge of the different types of flames which
woods are required and which locations are the best, and to know which type of person or group
of people is traditionally required for each type of ceremonial fire. In this way, there is as much
depth of lore, talent, learning and responsibility inherent in this role as there is for cloistered
flametenders and those who maintain the household flame.

20 Hutton, Stations of the Sun, 1996, p221. For how "witchcraft" is defined in Gaelic cultures, see " Rowan and Red Thread:
Magic and Witchcraft in Gaelic Cultures" by Annie Loughlin, Treasa N Chonchobhair, and Kathryn Price NicDhna.
21 That's p113 of Martin Martin. The only hard copy we have is a facsimile with some commentary interspersed
throughout in Michel Robson (Ed.), Curiosities of Art and Nature: The New Annotated and Illustrated Edition of Martin
Martin's Classic A Description of the Western Islands of Scotland, 2003, p101. Online here.
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Conclusion
Whether one serves Brigid as a cloistered flametender, as the hearthkeeper for their
household, or as the fire-builder for a community festival, there are multiple ways to carry one of
the sacred flames of Brigid. Brigid is also found in the holy wells and the green pastures where she
spreads her cloak on the beams of the sun. She is vast, and welcoming, and multifaceted. We hope
that by sharing some of our history and practices we have inspired you to learn more of her ways
or, if you are already on this road, to find fellowship with others who serve her.
Beannachdan Bhrghde Leibh (Blessings of Brigid be with you).

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Note on Liturgy and Thanks


The traditional liturgy in this piece is from Old Irish Poetry and the Carmina Gadelica. The
original pieces have been adapted from these sources and, in some cases, slightly "backengineered" for instance, to be for the goddess rather than the saint, or to include ancestors and
spirits of nature instead of the Christian God. In a few places original lines have been added as
well. See the footnotes for the specifics.
The authors extend their deep gratitude to Annie Loughlin for her help in editing and for
her research assistance on this work. This version was completed in August 2012. We will also be
publishing a longer version in the future. Photo used 2006 Kathryn Price NicDhna. All Rights
Reserved.

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