I attended two quite different events on February 1 to celebrate the feast day of St Brigid who as well as being (with Patrick and Columba) one of the three patron saints of Ireland is the patron saint of the Irish Chaplaincy, a charity based in London which reaches out particularly to Irish prisoners, Travellers and Seniors.
The first event was a Mass at Sacred Heart Church in Kilburn celebrated by our own Fr Gerry McFlynn. Gerry spoke in his sermon about some of the core themes in Brigid's life and work: care for the earth, peace and justice issues, gender equality, and being close to the poor. And he told of how in the 5th Century, Brigid founded in Kildare a double monastery, one for women the other for men, over which she ruled as abbess. Brigid was a strong but gentle woman, a good leader, and a wise spiritual guide; and she seems to have encapsulated in herself the qualities of the active and the contemplative. She spent long periods in silent contemplation from which she drew her confidence and courage; and she took her share in the manual work of the monastery: milking the cows, shepherding the sheep and brewing the ale. She practised hospitality (which for me will always be at the very heart of Irish culture), and had a special concern for the poor and marginalized. And she was attentive to the cycles of nature, with a reverence and respect for the wonder of creation.
She was also a peacemaker who often intervened in inter-tribal disputes and brought healing and reconciliation. As Gerry pointed out, Brigid was not just years ahead of her time, she was centuries ahead. She continues to bring inspiration and hope and strength, and because of all the qualities mentioned above she is a fitting patron for the Irish Chaplaincy.
From the church I went to the Irish Embassy to an inaugural event for Lá Fhéile Bríde, St Brigid's Day, which was a 'Celebration of the Creativity of Women', and what a celebration it was: scientists, political journalists, artists, writers, comedians, entrepreneurs, architects, designers: Irish women who have got to the top of what still can be very male-dominated fields. I was especially excited to hear three songs performed by the uniquely-expressive Franco-Irish chanteuse Camille O'Sullivan. And as I stood there in the Embassy Ballroom amidst that spellbound audience of people who were there to celebrate the gifts and creativity of Irish women, and as I thought of my own mother (another truly great Irish woman), I felt incredibly blessed: to do the kind of work I do, to meet the kind of people I meet, to have the upbringing and heritage I have.
Before we left we were addressed by Ambassador O'Neill and President Higgins (also a patron of the Irish Chaplaincy) who gave a striking phrase in his speech, that "life in love is God". And then we were treated to another moving song from Camille and some final words from the host, the hilarious and lovely Galway woman Pauline McLynn.
And one final thought: St Brigid's day marked the first day of Spring in the old Irish calendar. It might seem a bit premature in these cold, damp and dark days to be celebrating the start of Spring. Yet, the gradually lengthening days and the appearance in my garden of snowdrops, crocusses and even early daffodils reminds me that once more light will overcome dark, and new life shall return in that never-ending cycle of creation.
And may we continue to find inspiration and hope and strength in St Brigid.
Eddie Gilmore is chief executive at the London Irish Chaplaincy
For more information see: www.irishchaplaincy.org.uk
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