Sláinte! Forty Shades of Red

Ireland's St. Brigid. Photo: Google Images
Ireland's St. Brigid. Photo: Google Images

By Edythe Preet, Columnist
February / March 2013

Brigid – Ireland’s red-haired saint – was one of history’s liberated women.

Everyone knows that in Ireland one will encounter “forty shades of green.” Lesser realized is that another band of the spectrum also occurs in a multitude of hues: Red. While the former abounds in the lush verdant landscape, the latter crowns the heads of more than 420,000 Irish men, women and children.

Ranging in hue from strawberry blonde, burnt orange and bright copper to rich auburn and deep burgundy, red is the rarest natural hair color in humans and occurs in hardly more than one percent of the world’s population. In Ireland, however, the percentage jumps to 10 percent.

It is no wonder, then, that the ancient Irish divine pantheon included a red-haired goddess. Her name was Brid. According to myth, Brid was born full-grown at sunrise in a house ablaze with light. A fiery column reached from her flame-red curls into the heavens. Beside the cottage flowed a stream whose waters had power to cure. On its banks grew healing plants. In the pasture grazed a red-eared cow whose sweet milk never ran dry. Brid, the goddess of fire, was the patroness of hearth and home, smiths and forges, healers and herbs, poets and language.

Druid priests lit fires in Brid’s name on the Celtic feast of Imbolc (February 1st) beseeching the goddess for an early spring. Druids revered the oak, because, of all trees in the forest, it alone could survive a lightning strike. Priestesses tended a perpetual flame dedicated to Brid in an oak grove on a hill in Leinster (now known as Kildare, or “Place of the Oak”).

A Russian proverb warns: “There was never a saint with red hair.” Evidently the story of Ireland’s patroness, Saint Brigid, is unknown there.

For centuries, women, especially those born with red hair, were named Brid, Bridgid or Bridget in honor of the goddess. In approximately 435 A.D., one red-haired little girl who had been sired by a Celtic chieftain to a slave girl was foster raised by a Druid priest. This Brigid was beautiful, gifted, and so strong-willed that when the Druid attempted to marry her off, she refused, choosing instead to devote her life to charity and be baptized by a man named Patrick who was preaching the teachings of a new faith, Christianity, throughout Ireland.

Legend holds that on one Imbolc, Brigid placed her foot in a spring outside the village of Liscannor by the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare. Waters warmed; weather improved. Cows filled with milk; butter production expanded. To this day, pilgrims gather at Liscannor’s well on February 1, now celebrated as Brigid’s Feast Day, to beseech the saint’s blessing.

Saint Brigid was warm-hearted, hospitable, and one of history’s liberated women. She traveled widely, entertained with charm and grace, and, like modern successful women, was an excellent business manager who could outwit even the cagiest chieftain.

A favorite story concerns the founding of her abbey in Kildare. It seems Brigid had acquired such a reputation for good works that the local king was obliged to reward her. To prove his magnanimity, he offered Brigid as much land as her mantle could cover. With a knowing smile, the good woman spread her cloak on the ground. Much to the chieftain’s dismay, the garment grew until it covered the entire hill!

The abbey became a way station for the weary traveler, and its abbess, known for being as caring of starving dogs as hungry beggars, was miraculously able to feed multitudes with very little. Like her mentor, Saint Patrick, she was fond of ale and is reputed to have been the best brewer in the land. She also kept the best dairy, where her red-eared cows gave more and better milk than any other herd.

The monastery has been added to many times during the intervening millennia. In the 11th century a Norman round tower was built. Made of unmortared stone, the 108-foot tower is the tallest of its kind in Ireland and still stands in silent vigil over the surrounding countryside.

Six hundred years ago, a cathedral was built over the crumbling monastery, but during the 16th century its walls were blown out by invading English artillery fire. For two hundred years Saint Brigid’s lay crumbling and neglected.

Between 1860 and 1895, a massive restoration project expanded the ancient structure. At that time, stained glass windows that illuminate the interior yet today were installed. Each portrayal of Brigid bears Druid symbols: oak trees and the goddess Brid’s sacred fire.

These days, the customs of Saint Brigid’s feast interweave with rituals from pre-Christian times. A Brigid’s Cross made from new straw is hung above the door, and the old one is burned in the hearth. Once, the cross symbolized hope for a successful harvest. Now it invokes the Saint’s blessing. Whether the evening meal be fish, beef or fowl it is always accompanied with Boxty Cakes, plenty of fresh butter and tall glasses of creamy buttermilk.

In very traditional Irish homes, two devout practices are still observed. A strip of cloth called Brat Bhride (Brigid’s Mantle) is hung outside the door. A loaf of oat bread baked in the shape of a cross and a sheaf of straw are left on the windowsill. For on that one night, Brid travels again through the land with her red-eared cow bestowing blessings on those who remember the old ways. Sláinte!

Note: In the United States, largely due to massive emigrations from Ireland, it is estimated that 2–6 percent of the population has red hair. This would give the U.S. the largest population of redheads in the world, at 6 to 18 million.

RECIPES

Boxty Cakes
1     cup leftover mashed potatoes
1 1⁄2     cups grated raw potatoes
1     cup flour
1     egg
1     tablespoon milk
salt and pepper
Butter for frying

Toss the grated potatoes with flour in a large bowl (first use a paper towel to squeeze out excess water). Stir in mashed potatoes until combined. In a small bowl, beat egg with milk; mix into the potatoes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Form potato mixture into 2-inch patties.

Fry in melted butter in a medium frying pan until golden brown on both sides, approximately 4 minutes per side. Drain on a paper towel and keep hot in a 200F oven while making all the patties. Serve with fried eggs and bacon for breakfast, or with smoked salmon and crème fraiche for brunch or an elegant appetizer. Makes six servings.
– Personal recipe

The Irish Redhead Convention

Red hair genes, discovered in 1997, are associated with pigmentation receptors found on chromosome 16 in human DNA. The genetic mutation, which enhances the body’s ability to retain heat and produce Vitamin D under low light conditions, is theorized to have evolved in far northern climes where sunlight is scarce. It is estimated that up to 46 percent of the Irish population carries the recessive gene.

Redheads have light eye colors and fair skin, freckle easily, and are sensitive to ultraviolet light. They are highly susceptible to developing skin maladies, especially skin cancer, when exposed for prolonged periods to strong sun.

Begun as whimsy in the family pub of red-haired siblings Joleen and Denis Cronin, The Irish Redhead Convention will take place for the 4th year running on August 24 2013 in the beautiful
sailing village of Crosshaven, County Cork. For information on the festival, which includes RED-gistration for all Redheads, Redhead Competitions, Red Hair Dyeing, Carrot Tossing Championships, and a Ginger Chef Cook-off plus a ton more of Red Hot Events, visit www.redheadconvention.ie. All proceeds are donated to the Irish Cancer Society.

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