Featured Image is La Ghirlandata. Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882). 1873. Oil on canvas. 124 x 85 cm. Guildhall Gallery, London. City of London Corporation.
By John P. Walsh
In Ireland a generation ago the girl’s first name of Brigid (along with Mary) was one of the island’s most popular. Growing up in Chicago in the 1960s and 1970s, it seemed that a lot of Irish-American girls were named Brigid, or wished to be. By the 2010s the name of Brigid was no longer, in Ireland at least, very popular as other girls’ names replaced it.1 In Ireland the name Brigid is rendered in a healthy variety of ways. The well-known Bridget is the English variant. In this Irish folk song Bríd Óg Ní Mháille (Young Brigid O’Malley), it is the Irish language Brid (pronounced Breed). Irish also offers Bride, Brídín, Brighid, Brighidín, Brigit, Breeda, and others. With so many alternatives for a very ancient name it may be surprising that none of them rank high on the popularity charts although their accumulated usage may do so.2 With its root word being breo (which means fire), all variations of Brigid have the Irish word brígh in common. According to the Royal Irish Academy’s Dictionary of the Irish Language, brígh has multiple definitions and meanings. It primarily connotes “power, strength, force, and authority” but also translates as “vigor, virtue and fortitude.” In medicine, brígh refers to the antidote which proves to be strongly effective.3 As Brid is sometimes translated as “strong-willed” and “high born,” it becomes clear that this girl’s appellation possesses excellent qualities that, along with the beauty of its sound when spoken and its venerable ancient history, may presume to reach into the top 100 Irish names for girls some time in the future.
The first Irish historical figure directly associated with the name Brid or Brigid that is most relevant to the name in Ireland today is St. Brigid (c. 451 – 525). Along with Sts. Patrick (418-493) and Columba (540-615), she is one of Ireland’s three patron saints. Legends swirl around this early Christian figure from the moment of her birth, including the story of angels seen hovering over the Irish cottage where she was born near Dundalk at the foot of the Cooley Mountains. History records that her mother was a Christian slave and her father was a pagan chief. Soon after Brid’s birth, her mother was sold and had to leave her father’s house although young Brid stayed. There are many Irish fioretti relating Brid’s fantastical holy exploits during this period of her early youth. One appealing story among many tells of her disobeying her father so to journey to visit her enslaved mother. Traveling alone along Ireland’s wild pathways, Brid located her mother who was tending her owner’s cattle. Mother and daughter worked side-by-side until their labors’ fruit proved so abundant that Brid was able to secure her mother’s freedom. How Brid later chose to consecrate her life to God as a nun which led to her founding Ireland’s first monastic community of women is also explained in legends.4
St. Brigid of Ireland’s misty past is informed by a pre-Christian Celtic goddess named Brigid whose mythology as we know it today was first recorded, ironically perhaps, by early Irish Christian monks. As in St. Brid’s story of liberating her enslaved mother, the pagan goddess Brid is closely aligned to the cow as well as the sheep, but also animals with mythological qualities of regeneration such as the rooster and snake. Surrounding this more remote Brid is a panoply of supernatural qualities and events told in legends and folklore.5 Yet this ancient pagan Celtic goddess has her older forebears in the Proto-Indo-European goddesses that are over 5,000 years old. In ancient Mesopotamia one finds a certain Brid who was deity of the hearth.6
Bríd Óg Ní Mháille is an Irish folk song in a long line of Irish musical taste about forsaken love. It is performed here brilliantly in the Irish by singer Gillian Fenton who is accompanied on traditional Irish harp by Fiachra O’ Corragáin. There are many traditional and contemporary renditions, however, of this popular late nineteenth-century Irish Gaelic song. Its surge of popularity is an entirely local Irish story. There was a certain young man in mid-20th-century County Mayo who was a Gaelic teacher. He took particular fancy to this tune about a young Irishman who lost his love – the titular Bridget O’Malley – to another suitor and was left “heartbroken…the arrows of death…piercing my heart.”7 The Gaelic teacher, armed with this air about “the beauty of Oriel without any doubt…now married to another…” took it with him back to the county just next door, his native Donegal, where its popularity first flourished.
There is another Irish Gaelic song referencing the name Brid that is titled Fair Bridget (Brid Bhan) and also emanates out of Donegal. It is not as popular as Bríd Óg Ní Mháille, but speaks about a modern young Brid – similar to the mother of ancient St. Brid – who is taken out of her home to tend cattle in a far-away place not her own. It is heartbreak for this fair Brid to begin a new life where the cows graze on the “sour grass” of the mountain sides. Like St. Brid’s mother, this fair Brid, it is told, eventually returned to her native place, although the song doesn’t tell us, only local legend. The listener, however, can be assured of the veracity of these melancholy verses for in Bríd Óg Ní Mháille it says: “There is nothing more beautiful than the moon over the sea or the white blossom, and my love is like that with her golden tresses and her honey-mouth that has never deceived anybody.”
Oh Bríd O’Malley
You have left my heart breaking
You’ve sent the death pangs
Of sorrow to pierce my heart sore
A hundred men are craving
For your breathtaking beauty
You’re the fairest of maidens
In Oriel for sure
I’m a handsome young fellow
Who is thinking of wedlock
But my life will be shortened
If I don’t get my dear
My love and my darling
Prepare now to meet me
On next Sunday evening
On the road to Drum Slieve
‘Tis sadly and lonely
I pass the time on Sunday
My head bowed in sorrow
My sights heavy with woe
As I gaze upon the byways
That my true love walks over
Now she’s wed to another
And left me forlorn
- Topping the list of the 100 most popular girls’ names in Ireland today are Emily, Emma, Sophie, Ella, and Amelia, in that order. Mary ranks number 84 and Bridget is not even on the list. See – http://www.irish-genealogy-toolkit.com/Irish-girl-names.html
- In 2015, within the family of girl names directly related to Brígh, Brianna was the most widely used. Brian is the male form of the name.
- http://edil.qub.ac.uk/6813 retrieved March 29, 2017.
- See Irish Saints, Robert T. Reilly, Avenel Books, New York, 1981, pp. 16-26.
- Carey, John. “Tuath Dé” inThe Celts: History, Life, and Culture, edited by John T. Koch. ABC-CLIO, 2012. pp.751-753.
- See The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World, J.P. Mallory; D.Q. Adams, 2006, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
- Folksongs of Britain and Ireland, edited by Peter Kennedy, Schirmer Books, New York, 1975, p. 82.
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