In the Irish town of Tully in County Kildare, a statue of a woman wearing a cross pendant around her neck and holding up a flame in one hand stands by a pool of water. This is St Brigit (or Brigid or Brighid, among other spellings) at St Brigit’s Well – one of around 100 holy wells in Ireland associated with her, and one of two in Tully. (St Brigit’s Wayside Well is the other.) It is estimated that there are some 3,000 holy wells in Ireland, many of them thought to have healing powers.
The statue is modern, the work of sculptor Annette McCormack, and so too some of the stories applied to the most important female saint in Ireland, for since the late 19th century she has been considered a Christian iteration of the ancient Irish goddess Brigit.
As Mark Williams writes, the lack of earlier sources means that Celtic mythological stories are products of the Christian era, written down by medieval scholars. Because of a lack of widespread familiarity with Old Irish and Medieval Welsh, it is the various later retellings of the myths and accounts of gods, goddesses, fairies, and heroes that prevail.
In the case of Brigit, one of the Tuatha Dé (the ‘god-peoples’), we have an account of her attributes from an entry in an early 10th-century glossary. She is a goddess of poetry, medicine, and blacksmithing, but there is no mention of the fire that becomes associated with her sainted counterpart. Brigit is one the children of the Dagda, the father god, and in some sagas she is married to Bres (who is also known as a belligerent in the primordial battle between the Tuatha Dé and their enemies the Fomorians).
Brigit is often described as a fire goddess, and this has become one of her main attributes, as seen in many modern illustrations. But this link was only made in the 19th century, which is also when it is suggested that St Brigit is a Christianised form of the ancient Irish goddess. St Brigit has fire miracles attributed to her in early biographies, and, in her monastic foundation in Kildare, nuns tended an eternal flame – according to a 12th-century description. So a popular line is that, after the conversion of Ireland, the ancient fire goddess was kept on in the new guise of the saint, with her cult and its flame now honoured by nuns.
Later still, Brigit was recast as a creator goddess by the Irish writer Ella Young. Providing Celtic myth with an origin story, in her 1910 Celtic Wonder-Tales, Young describes Brigit shaking her green cloak into the chaos, for the other gods to enter into it and create the world.
While such accounts vary from the medieval texts, they are all, as Williams writes, ‘part of the history of Celtic myth’.
The Celtic Myths That Shape the Way We Think by Mark Williams is published by Thames & Hudson (ISBN 978-0500252369; £20).