Ethna johnston

A transatlantic St. Brigid’s Day

A virtual get-together for Imbolg St. Brigid's Day.

By Maura Mulligan

As Imbolg St. Brigid's Day approached, I thought about how our Nollaig Na mBan NY team might virtually celebrate the spring season and encourage people to support our charity, The Dwelling Place of NY – a transitional shelter for homeless women.

Mary Courtney, a faithful St. Brigid’s Day presenter was warmly welcomed by our Nollaig Na mBan NY team member Nancy Oda. The versatile singer/musician started the festivities with songs that spoke of nature and hope. Her performance this year included a poem, “I am Eire” by Karhy L.Hirliman for which Mary composed the music. Her rendition of Trasna Na dTonnta (across the waves) united us on both sides of the Atlantic. She will be singing for the virtual Sober St. Patrick’s Day Celebration and for the Hope Foundation Gala this year. You’ll catch her live on Facebook every Friday from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Eastern.

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I met Derry poet Ethna Johnston at the writing course organized by Scoil Acla (Achill Summer School). Ethna was introduced to our Zoom audience by Nollaig Na mBan NY team member Mary McIntyre. We were not surprised that Ethna Johnston’s poetry was the recipient of the Charles Macklin award in 2004, for she held us spellbound with her inspiring words. Sometimes all we have is words she reminded us but words fail too often when we most need them:

“Words fail.

And fall through the crystal water,

Like stones.”

In her poem “Trout” she spoke of gratitude and gladness:

“It’s strange and wonderful

Where I found this poem

Lingering by mottled pebbled banks,

Laughed in sounds of water flowing,

Glanced on weed and glinting bubbles;

Strange and wonderful

Strange and wonderful


to have tickled it ashore.”

Copies of Ethna Johnston’s collection can be ordered through and through the website of Tir Na hÓige at

Poet Ethna Johnston.

Weaving a St. Brigid’s cross on the eve of St. Brigid’s Day is an old Irish tradition. The cross was often hung at the entrance to a home and was said to ward off evil energies. I invited a Mayo friend and neighbor Terence Flanagan from Coillte Mach to give us a lesson on the art of weaving. Terence along with his wife Gerardine collected rushes and showed us how the cross is made. Attendees who followed the instruction displayed their pipe cleaner works of art. Others showed crosses they’d made at previous Imbolg celebrations.

Terence Flanagan showing the gathering how to weave the cross.

Speaking to us from Achill Island, another artist I met at Scoil Acla, Sheila McHugh began with a ritual as she inspired us with her account of Brigid–goddess and saint. With Sheila’s expertise in women’s history, Celtic spirituality and world religions I knew her participation would foster the spirit of Brigid:

"As one of the trinity of saints of Ireland (Brigid, Patrick and Colmcille), the feast of Brigid more than either of the other two invites us to participate in ritual as part of its celebration,” she said. She directed us to take three deep breaths and extend our cupped hands to receive a blessing from Brigid. She invited us to do likewise at the end of her presentation: “opening our hands a little more in a spirit of giving - sending out the blessings/gifts that have come to us this evening through the spirit of Brigid – giving what we have received and in return getting it back one hundred fold."

One of the questions Sheila posed for reflection at the end of her presentation was the following:

“In this time of deep separation and perhaps ‘wandering’ in lonely isolation how do we understand hospitality? Can we create ‘hospitality’ that is heart centered, therefore life- giving both to the giver and receive?”

Hospitality was very much on our minds as we made an appeal for attendees to help “The Dwelling Place of NY” which was closed during the pandemic. It reopened two weeks ago and the administrator Deborah Pollack sent the following report about the reopening:

“On arrival, each woman found a basket on her bedside table filled with personal items and PPE. A generous donor provided welcome gifts of soft socks, lotion, and a gift card, and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York also contributed gift cards that will allow the women to purchase clothes for job interviews and MetroCards to travel to in-person interviews.

Each woman was able to select a primary care physician and a mental health specialist (if needed) through services coordinated by Housing Works, Inc.

Some of the women began taking virtual yoga classes led by Exhale to Inhale. These classes are designed for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and other traumatic experiences.

Several of the women began working with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, through which they will receive job training and work experience.”

The shelter’s update also states the following: “We invite anyone who is interested in learning about safe volunteer opportunities during the pandemic, to please call the shelter at 212-564-7887.

If you would rather support The Dwelling Place virtually, we invite you to share our Amazon Wishlist with your friends and family or make a donation via the website:

Special thanks to Emily & Gillian Rowland-Kain for technical support.

On behalf of Nollaig Na mBan NY, I wish everyone the blessing of St. Brigid for a safe and healthy year ahead.

Author of the memoir, “Call of the Lark,” Maura Mulligan teaches Gaeilge for the New York Irish Center.