Trad musicians play as Dee Nolan’s St. Brigid’s cross-weaving tutorial continues in the background. [Photos by Dan Brown]

Afternoon in spirit of St. Brigid

If one of the hallmarks of the ancient Celtic fire festival known as Imbolg, held as February appears, is celebrating creativity, then the women of Nollaig na mBan NY are faithful to the cause. This group of now nine women have been meeting since 2016 to organize and participate in the four Celtic “fire festivals”: Imbolg, Bealtaine, Lughnasa and Samhain. Our aim was to foster the arts, support centers that promote Irish cultural events, and raise money along with awareness for worthy charities run by, and for, women and families. 

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An afternoon of rotating performance, presentations and short workshops unrolled inside the Ripley-Grier studios on 8th Avenue on Saturday, Feb. 3, enjoyed by an audience eager to try their hand at weaving a Celtic St Brigid’s Cross, writing in response to a picture prompt, trying out the sounds of some introductory Gaelic and participating in building a cellphone picture collage. All this for a modest door donation of $20 which we forward to the remarkable Ukrainian women making up the Ukrainian National Women's League of America, UNWLA. This organization helps refugees here in New York City and raises funds for much-needed medical equipment saving lives in war-torn Ukraine. 

Imbolg means “in the belly,” and since the 10th century early February has been associated with fertility and fire, embodied by Ireland’s most famous female goddess Brigid. Since 2023, Feb. 1, St. Brigid’s Day, is celebrated in Ireland as a national holiday. The popular following that Brigid generated survived Christianity’s influence to result in canonization after the death of the real Brigid, Ireland’s first nun, in 542 AD. Daughter of a famous chieftain, she was raised in a druid household to become patron of a wide range of creative and regenerative qualities. Livestock and dairy production, fermentation, poetry and learning are among many of these. An unusual woven cross, named for the saint, became the emblem of the remarkable woman who built the first Abbey for women in Kildare and which can still be visited today. An eternal flame burns there in her memory and, after many years of darkness following the suppression of the monasteries, was lit again in 1993. A unique sculpture now houses the flame, relit in 2006 by the then-president of Ireland, Mary McAleese. 

Maura Mulligan, founder of Nollaig na mBan NY, and organizer of numerous fire festivals held to honor ancient - and modern - Irish traditions, welcomed the participants and gave some background. Short poems followed by writer and musician Patricia McCue, founder Maura and this author, setting the tone and spirit for the appreciative audience. Patricia read “Mosaic of Gray” and “Piping Plovers,” the latter in recognition of the fragile tiny bird in danger of extinction. Maura read her beautiful “Follow the Faoileann,” inspired by a mysterious “disappearing” beach on Achill Island off Ireland’s West Coast, and a haven for writers and musicians. Prevented by storm-tossed rocks from walking to the water, a flock of faoileann (seagulls), call her to visit the sturdier Keem Bay sands. This author read “The Space Between,” reminding us that a powerful energy is present in the earth as it readies for new growth, where limitless possibilities can be seized and made manifest. “Earth’s pause yet life’s directions beckoning, infinite and fluid.” 

Irish-language teachers Maura Mulligan (beginners), and Mary McIntyre (practiced speakers) increased our word banks with techniques based on listening and doing (Maura) and learning some fun proverbs (Mary). 

Avid historian Karen Daly brought an interesting 1911 Ireland photograph of a traveling theater group appearing at the Theater Royal, Waterford, inspiring a writing prompt. Their costumes and accessories were amazing and varied, generating many ideas for a short – 15-minute – written piece. Sharing with fellow participants was optional but clearly embraced, as applause and some hilarity followed. Writer Vincent Simpson clearly enjoyed the exercise, and his “tongue-in-cheek” piece on Irish hopefuls auditioning for a job digging subway tunnels, where desirable attributes were a strong back and calloused hands, contributed to the audible chuckles. 

In the spirit of St Brigid, we were encouraged to try different skills, so Tami McLoughlin’s lesson on creating a picture collage on our cellphones fell firmly in that camp. Her professional communications expertise made for clear instructions and encouragement, much appreciated by her admittedly technology-challenged group. All came away with a new (free) app and a library containing our attempts, plus the ability to further familiarize ourselves with the options available. 

Tami McLoughlin’s lesson on creating a picture collage on one’s cellphone.

Bewley’s tea and sweet treats provided delightful refreshment, and judging by the rapidly “disappearing goodies” I imagine Mary Fee and other contributors had a much lighter load heading home. Fiddlers Patricia McCue and Maureen Carson, with Joan DiBlasi on bodhran, accompanied the St Brigid’s cross weaving demonstrated by Dee Nolan and myself. Dee’s performing arts background was an advantage, and despite a few puzzling moments of orientation, ended with satisfied smiles and admiration for our color patterns, all different. Legend tells the story of Brigid weaving a cross from rushes covering the floor by a pagan chieftain’s bedside, her soothing words describing the significance of the cross and inspiring him to be baptized before he died. These crosses hang over doors inside many Irish homes, and now our weavers can proudly display their own. 

St Brigid’s association with fire made it appealing to attempt a simplified version of the “Bonfire Dance,” frequently performed at ceilidhs and seasonal Irish gatherings. Once chairs and tables were cleared, Maura Mulligan’s expertise in corralling old and young in her popular dance classes, led to almost everyone, dancers and not, joining hands and managing to remain upright and just a little out of breath. Our regular participant and gifted photographer, Dan Brown, delayed his leaving preparations to raise his camera and capture the unexpected musical coda. 

The time had flown by, and everyone took something away from the afternoon, from interesting history to new crafts and skills. St Brigid’s approval was almost palpable, and we left in beautiful sunshine, the prospect of Spring and opportunity lent an extra energy to every step.