Ireland’s Deputy Consul General Eimear Friel with a St. Brigid’s cross.
By Deirdre Batson
It was a standing-room-only situation in Room 16L at the Ripley Grier Studios in Midtown on Saturday, Feb. 1, prompting several dashes for more seating from the willing audience and friendly staff. The crowd was gathering to celebrate the first day of Celtic spring, known as Imbolg/St. Brigid’s Day, as well as to honor St. Brigid and her druid antecedent, the goddess Brigid, with music, drama, crafts and food, a sample of just a few of the essential aspects of life that are associated with these powerful Irish women.
Time and talent for all the events were donated by the planners and participants in what has become the first in an annual revival series of the four culturally and historically rich Celtic “fire festivals”: Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. The series was spearheaded by a group of women who met five years ago on Jan. 6 to celebrate Women’s Day/Nollaig na mBan. They realized, during that memorable lunch, that many Irish women were not only celebrating that day traditionally by leaving the cares and housework to the men, but in that Ireland the day had become a focus for many fundraising and awareness activities, particularly concentrating on women’s issues.
Calling themselves Nollaig na mBan NYC and led mightily by Mayo’s own Maura Mulligan – herself an integral part of the Irish community in New York and beyond – the original group committed to give donations from audience members to fund a worthy cause – in this case we chose the Dwelling Place, a transitional shelter for homeless women on Manhattan’s West Side. Founded in 1977 by the Franciscan Sisters of Allegheny, the organization provides support and help to women who are searching for affordable housing and employment.
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Actors reading scenes from Maura Mulligan’s “Oscail an Doras”/“Open the Door,” about the Brigids, saint and goddess.
Now in their fifth year, these Celtic events attract both performers and audience from near and far. Maura Mulligan introduced the event to a full house and brought our attention to the skills of two musicians providing lovely background music as people gathered and found seats. Mary Courtney sang and played guitar, Vonnie Quinn was a terrific fiddler. Mary regularly plays in New York venues, catch her on Friday evenings at An Beal Bocht on West 238st in the Bronx, and put her latest CD, “Freedom’s Pioneers,” on your playlist! Her first song was ‘Come by the Hills’ which beautifully serenaded the full house. To hear her voice telling us “Cares of tomorrow must wait until this day is done” resonated with everyone present. “I never really hear the words of a song until Mary sings them” praised Vonnie Quinn after the tune ended, and indeed they sang clearly in the air.
Vonnie followed with a jig and encouraged us all to tap our feet and get up and dance if driven to do so – at least a few listeners did just that at the back of the room! A song about Mayo colors, honoring the attendees from that county, came next, and another dance. Regretfully this part of the program ran out of time although all present were hoping for ‘just one more’. And other delights awaited!
Karen Daly was our host for the afternoon and effortlessly introduced each set of performers with just the right words to highlight their main attributes – not an easy task given the accomplishments to choose from. She also explained the history and significance of St. Brigid’s Day, how this unique woman became the patron saint of so many natural, cultural and academic aspects of life in Ireland on this first day of Celtic Spring, Imbolg, celebrated throughout Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Saint Brigid lived in Ireland in the 5th century and was impelled to help the poor from her youth. She inspired a group of women followers to build a convent and also a monastery in Kildare, these gaining renown as cultural and learning destinations. Brigid herself became exceptionally influential as a woman in her time. She is the patron saint of a host of essential occupations and rites including fishermen, dairy farmers, birth, fertility and water, as well as scholars. Her attributes are frequently compared to those of St Patrick, and many hold her in higher esteem! St Brigid’s Day is celebrated on Feb. 1 bringing early spring and cultural richness to lighten the grey skies after winters grip has loosened.
Vonnie Quinn, left, and Mary Courtney. PHOTOS BY DAN BROWN
Both Brigids starred in the play that followed written by Maura Mulligan – “Oscail an Doras/Open the Door.” The “Door” turned out to be a reference to the barrier that prevents women from being ordained in the Catholic church, and the play featured conversations and interactions between both Saint (played by Catherine O’Sullivan) and Goddess (Annalise Chamberlin) Brigid as they team up to try and persuade the Pope (played by Jack Di Monte) to change his mind. The actors are all well known in bother the amateur and professional acting world and we were grateful for their time and talents. Some humor, interesting woman-to-woman discussions, and a surprising theatrical moment punctuate the play and had everyone rooting for that change of heart. Still a “work in progress,” the development of characters and an element of mystery made everyone eager to witness the play’s future path.
Joann Sambs, the present administrator of the Dwelling Place, always attends every event and brings stories of progress as well as struggles. She graciously and gratefully accepted the proceeds from the modest door donation and shared some wonderful news with us. Dan Brown, who always takes the marvelous photographs, had formed a poem and storytelling group at the end of 2019 to entertain the women staying at the shelter, and was returning for a second round to the delight of all those lucky to hear the debut performances! In addition, a group of Irish Americans committed to advancing leadership skills, known as L.E.A.P., was doing outreach in the community and have adopted The Dwelling Place. They are currently engaged in developing a visual, online communications platform to tell the inspiring story of this unique shelter.
The refreshment break was much appreciated by all present and featured fruit, cheese and crackers as well as Mary Fee’s delicious fruit cake crowned with festive frosting and defying the leaving of a single crumb. Wine and sparkling water completed the table and, well fortified, guests that chose could learn how to weave a St Brigid’s Cross from colorful pipe cleaners at two craft tables led by Dee Nolan and by this columnist herself. There was an amusing rivalry between the choices of materials hosted by each table, but the final crosses were picture perfect and proudly borne away by the weavers to hang in their home.
The next festival, Bealtaine, falls on May 1 so mark it on your calendars as guaranteed to entertain and to educate. Nollaig na mBan NYC has a popular Facebook page so be sure to check it out for news and prospects for upcoming events