Friday, 28 January 2011

Book Review: The Festival of Brigit

This is a book I found during my last trip to the library, and it made me all kinds of excited because I never even knew it existed, and I found it completely by accident. Serendipity. Off I skipped to the check out desk and brought it home for my reading pleasure, and given the season I wanted to get it read and reviewed before the big day next week, just in case there was something Very Important nestling in those shiny pages.

There was, as it happens. I realised I recognised one of the Brigit's crosses from my childhood, and showing the pictures to Mr Seren, he did too. According to this picture (from E Estyn Evans' Irish Folk Ways), it's number six. My nan (and my husband's nan) used to make them around Easter, though, although I don't remember them being called anything in particular. I remember making them out of wool or string and lollipop sticks, and I was never very good at it, really, but my sister used to make loads. It's odd, sometimes, the things that come back to you. I might have a go at making some with the kids at some point.

The Festival of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman
Séamas Ó Catháin

This is the same author who wrote The Festival of Brigit the Holy Woman (link to pdf) in the Celtica journal, which is full of lots of good stuff on Là Fhèill Brìghde. I also recently got hold of another article of his, which I did a mini-review of a month or two ago, Hearth-Prayers and other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman in JRSAI Volume 122. Seeing as I'd been impressed by his previous work, then, I figured that theme would continue with the book.

The book is a fairly slim volume, consisting of five chapters with copious amounts of notes and references. Notes and references are always good in my book, so that always inspires confidence, and I sat down to read with enthusiasm.

After the introduction, I got to chapter one (naturally), and things began to look strangely familiar...Yup, it was familiar, because it's the article from the Celtica journal. Fair enough - still a good read, and full to the brim of all the folkloric kind of stuff that I'm interested in.

Chapter two takes a slightly odd tangent (I thought), in exploring Nordic and Finno-Ugrian connections with bears, and evidence of Irish hangovers of similar sorts of lore. Ó Catháin brings in the issue of the serpent ritual that Carmichael wrote about, drawing comparison to the symbolism of the bear waking up in spring, and the rite recognising the fact that the 'serpent' (i.e. maybe possibly a bear) is now becoming active as well. Generally the chapter left me scratching my head a little, but there was some interesting stuff on Norse/Irish parallels in inviting the spring season in (Ó Catháin gave Icelandic and Swedish examples, that bear a remarkable resemblance to the practice of inviting Bride in) that could've done with exploring a little more in detail, I thought - are the similarities indicative of a common Indo-European origin, or later influence from Norse settlers in Scotland and (to a lesser extent) Ireland? All in all, I was left a little confused here.

Moving on swiftly to chapter three, then, things started looking very familiar again. Yup...This chapter is the JRSAI article. In some ways this article is even more oddly tangential than the last, but there's still good reading to be had here. For the most part, though, a large part of it is only loosely to do with Là Fhèill Brìghde, but still relevant in a looser sense. Again, Ó Catháin draws comparison with Norse and Finno-Ugrian evidence, and brings up some interesting parallels, but in some ways it's lacking in anything conclusive or analytical.

Chapters four and five are a little more focused than chapter three, but are less relevant to the festival itself, really. Chapter four concentrates on tale types found in Ireland that bear similarities with Norse tales (of women being kidnapped from booleys, mainly), while chapter five concentrates on Brigit's associations with livestock (as well as other saints, like Columba and Brendan). There's a little bit about the brat Bride here, but overall, nothing that really grabbed me or kept me particularly enthused.

In the end, I was left feeling that there is something distinctly lacking here. This is a book that's really a collection of articles, whereas what it really needs to be (or what I wanted) is something much more cohesive. It would have been nice to have the first chapter expanded on, and the material dealt with in far more depth, and while the comparative material eventually made its point, I ended up wishing that he'd get to the point without so much waffle about things that didn't immediately appear relevant.

I just couldn't help but feel that the title of the book was more than a little misleading. Yes, it's a good read, for the most part - even if I didn't agree with some of the interpretations that were made - but I guess the title had me expecting something more focused on the subject matter it purported to be concentrating on. Having said that, I think it will certainly appeal to anyone with an interest in Brigit. Looking at copies of it that are available to buy, however, I'm not sure that the £200 price tag is really worth it.

OK, it's really not worth dropping £200 on, but then I'm not sure any book is, not really. I would say that if you can't get hold of the book from a library, there's still plenty to be getting on with if you start with the articles mentioned above.

Another update

It turns out that the last article was the first in a set...

I touched on some genealogical bits and pieces in the last article, so it got me thinking about maybe expanding on it, just to get a different perspective. I've stuck to a very narrow view, as it were, and concentrated on the earliest periods that I can, for the most part. Here:

Gods as ancestors

And yes, there are some awe-inspiring and amazing illustrations again...