Brigid’s feast day of 1 February is celebrated as St Brigid’s Day in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church and by the Anglican Communion. Many of us recall making the traditional rush crosses in primary school, but few people are aware of the survival of devotional hymns to St Brigid, written in Old Irish, in some of our earliest manuscripts.
The Liber Hymnorum (Book of Hymns, TCD MS 1441, late 11th century) is the earliest manuscript in Trinity College Library with a substantial amount of Irish. It contains devotional hymns in both Latin and Irish used in the services of the early Irish church. Typically called a ‘service book’, the manuscript is one of the few survivors of its kind. It is a collection of forty hymns almost all of Irish origin, with canticles (hymns taken from the Bible) and explanatory prefaces to each hymn. Some of the hymns are also to be found in the Antiphonary of Bangor, the Leabhar Breac, and the Book of Cerne. Some of the texts have been attributed to the great authors of the 5th-8th centuries, including Patrick, Columba, Secundius, Ninine and Últan, the latest being Mael Isú ua Braolcháin (d. 1086). A similar compilation, dating from the 12th century and belonging to the Irish Franciscans in Dublin, exists in University College Dublin (UCD-OFM A 2).
At the bottom of folio 16v in the Liber Hymnorum is the opening of the hymn Brigit Bé Bithmaith (‘Brigit ever good woman’) written in Old Irish, probably in the 9th century. A zoomorphic capital ‘B’ marks the beginning of the hymn, which continues on to folio 17r. It is preceded by a lengthy preface, also in Irish, which argues the authorship of the hymn (Saint Últan is claimed to be the true author, but Saint Columcille and Saint Brendan are also thrown into the mix). The hymn was traditionally used as a powerful lorica (a prayer recited for protection in Christian monastic tradition) and shows Brigid’s pagan origins in her aspect as Goddess – linked to the sun and fire -and as a pillar of Irish spirituality together with St Patrick. The reference to her as the Mother of Jesus is folkloric – legend claims her to be the midwife to Mary and foster mother of Christ. Translated here are the first three verses (with standardisation of the Old Irish spelling):
Brigit bé bithmaith Brigit ever good woman
breó orda óiblech A sparkling golden flame
donfe don bithlaith may she lead us to the eternal realm
in grian tind toidlech the shining bright sun
Ronsoera Brigit Save us Brigit
sech drungu demna from hordes of demons
roroena reunn may she win for us
cathu cach thedma battles of every hardship
Dorobdo innunn Destroy within us
ar colla císu the sins of our flesh
in chroeb co mblathaib the branch with flowers
in mathair Ísu. The mother of Jesus
Caoimhe Ní Ghormáin