A muse on Gwyl Ffraid, threads connecting various thoughts together at this time of year.
The festival of St Braid, Bride or Bridget, although celebrated in Wales and paralleled to the same named festival in Ireland, was in turn, superseded or blended with a much earlier one, namely Imbolc. In all account Gwyl Ffraid could have likewise superseded a previously unnamed festival in Wales, but replacing it via its popularity. The transference from Ireland to Wales is likely to have occurred in Post Roman Britain, with an influx of Gaelic settlers in Southern Wales from the South West of Ireland. The modern day Wexford area could well come to mind, being south of Kildare where the cult of St Bride/Brigit became established.
The influx of Gaelic settlers, and the continued exchange between the two countries is likely to be the cause of its introduction into Wales. Likewise this too could have occurred in the north too, which also received a Gaelic influx. In turn the information about the men of the North coming down from Manaw Gododdin, bear witness to this. Indeed this did not settle the matter either, as Gaelic settlement and indeed to some extent influence continued past this point in space and time.
On a wider scale the proposed dates in which the transition and amalgamation of Celtic and Christian festivals are indicated to have occurred is between ca 525 – ca 650 in Europe. Indeed these dates are probably generalisations, unless there was already a movement in place prior to the Ireland accepts the authority of Rome in 663 and by 644 CE nearly all where celebrating the date of the Roman Easter festival. However other followed later such as Iona and the Picts the transition wasn’t complete until Wales’s final accepted the authority of the Rome church in 714 CE. Indeed a long drawn out process which continued as the evangelisation process took another five hundred years or more. Irrespectively the infusion of festival celebrations was a hot topic at the time within the Church establishment.
So the marring of myths and legends becoming attached to real people who in turn are put on a pedestal by leading regional families. They become promoted as saints, from high standing families in authority, one would suspect the transition was assisted via the Fili and Bards as a natural progression occurs as associated legends and mythology becomes infused together.
The Scholar Andrew Breeze has been very prolific in papers submitted to Journals over the past years, which explores the association between St. Bride/Bridget of Kildare. In some cases it associates the surviving literature, combined with the fertility and pregnancy of the earth, with a hint to the three rays of light. Some of these points are aspects which has infiltrated into the festival together with the survived of recorded folklore.
If one takes a different perspective of this, we have a high standing family daughter who is possibly influenced by the practices and influences of the Desert Fathers from Northern Africa. To become a ‘soldier of Christ’ this is where people could live within nature and off its local produce in solitude contemplating the Divine, a very emetic life style. Alternatively St. Bridget has been associated to be the founder and Abbess of a female community at Kildare who lived between c.450-525 CE. Yet at the same time they too served the local community additionally morals and a way of life lived and displayed set an example on the way to live a mortal life.
After ones passing to the otherworld, the legends become attached from mythology. Bride/Bridget becomes associated with the Dagda, the “Good Farther God” giving immortality described in legendary proportions. A story of Bride hanging her cloak on the Sunbeam of light gives it a magical associations and proportions. Specifically when other saints of the period are unable to duplicate this feat or indeed have a similar relationship to the Dagda. The introduction of Christianity could well see the monastic scribes blending and uniting the various influences to make it more palatable. Bride is associated with the mother of God the Virgin Mary, yet there is a fusion, as archaic concepts are maintained and modified. Bride association with the earth and connection to the Dagda is the pregnant mother of nature, and a waits to give birth to the coming spring. Agriculturally, the lambs and flow of yews milk become a symbolic association in the real world, the birth of spring and new life within nature is approaching. The concepts of the increased light which becomes noticeable in the northern Hemisphere at this time, and celebrated in Candlemass on the 2nd February suggests they are all interconnected, even though the passing of time has created a fusion of ideas which can cause a knot of confusion unless that knot becomes untangled. Indeed the Life of St Bridget is full of miracles which assist to heighten the status leading towards Sainthood.
Attempting to answer the question of how the transition of this festival occurred is a difficult one, and is very much dependable on which angle; one might wish to approach it. Legend speaks of St Ffraid travelling across the Irish sea on a piece of turf in one case.
Nonetheless there are various regional establishments in Wales evident that held St. Ffraid or Bride/Bridget as a local Saint. Llan’s or churches were established where she was honoured. Most of which are located in South Wales which received the most influences coming in from Ireland. Associate with legends of St. Ffraid travelling across the Irish sea on a piece of turf. However the influence of Ffraid also reached the north at Conwy with Llansanffráid Glan Conwy. Here legend speaks of Ffraid travelling over on a small island with another holy woman named Modweena. The small island broke away from Ireland, floated across to become attached to the headland at Daganwy, Fridd continued up river, where the church dedicated to her can be found.
There too, is a well dicated to the memory of St Ffraid, at Swyddffynnon, in Cerridigion. Although it appears to have no folklore attached and the recovery of artefacts from its vercinity were all post medievial. Subsequently it could be challenging to put a date on this well. Nonetheless one might visualise springs and wells with attributes of the unseen fertility and health deriving from mineral waters, seeping up from the underworld, or from the womb of St. Ffarid.
A thought of unseen power rising up from out of the earth, and its purification as growth begins to stir in nature. The fattening of buds on the various trees, noticeable in the silver birch as those buds take on a purplish colour in stark contrast to its bark. Other signs become apparent too the swelling and darkening of the Ash tree mitre buds, which is usually the last to break forth into foliage. Plants start to push upwards through the soil; a popular one associated at this time is the snowdrop. One of the noticeable things in nature is the slowly lengthening of light between sun up, to sun down. Folklore customs from the past recognised this too, with the returning of a candle which was given out at Nos Galen Gaef when the light was getting shorter, is now being returned. Of course there is the festival of Candlemass which follows the following day on the festival calendar, celebrating the purification and fertility of the Virgin Mary.
St.Ffraid or Bidget is not necessaily restricted to Ireland or Wales, she can be found in Brittany and Glastonbury too. The writings of William of Malmesbury c.1135 and John of Glastonbury c.1400 both describe traditions when St Bridget visited Glastonbury in 488AD and spent some time at the St. Bride's mound. There was also an oratory dedicated to Mary Madeline. Relics of St Bridget are reported to be on display in there time for visiting Pilgrims. John of Glastonbury tells of a hole in the chapel wall that is reputed to have healing powers. The whole site was known as Little Ireland at one time. Legends inform King Arthur receiving a vision here on St Bride’s mound of the Virgin Mary and Jesus, which we are told lead to his conversion to Christianity, along with the Holy Grail Quest.
Breverton, T.D., (2000) The Book of Welsh Saints, Glyndwr Publishing.
Davis, P., (2003) In Search of the Holy Wells and Spas of Wales, Blorenge Books.
McCafferty, P., and Baillie, M., (2005) The Celtic Gods; Coments in Irish Mythology, Tempus.
McCluskey, S., (1998) Astronomies and Culture in Early Medieveal Europe, Cambridge.
Owen, T., (1988) Welsh Folk Customs, National Folk Museum of Wales, Cardiff.
Styles, S., (1979) Welsh Walks and Legends, John Jones.
Waddell, J., (2005) Foundation Myths: The Beginning of Irish Archaeology, Woodwell.
Folklore, Gwyl Ffraid, Ireland, St. Ffraid, Wales, bride, bridget