I grew up in Watkins Glen, New York and there were so many Italian-Americans living there that the town was oftentimes derogatorily referred to as Wop Town. I was sometimes called Redheaded Wop because I had flaming red hair and my last name was Filippetti. And people can be prejudiced and ignorant, especially in small towns like Watkins Glen, New York. The Italian name was given to me by my step-father when he married my mother, but there wasn’t an ounce of Italian blood in me. There was some Irish blood in me, however, which was somewhat obvious. I prayed to the Blessed Mother, Holy Mother of God, and Virgin Mary and was a member of St. Mary’s of the Lake Church. Once when I was ten, I was kneeling with a statute of Mary and saw her wink at me. St Mary was on my side! However, I never prayed to St Brigid and it wasn’t until I was an adult that I came to know her.
I love what is said about St. Brigid – that she hung her cloak on a sunbeam. Brigid means “high one,” “bright one,” “Mary of the Gael, Queen of the Irish race.” It’s also believed that this same Brigid was once a goddess before she became a saint. Brigid, the goddess of water, fire, and transformation; healing and encouragement. I have no problem these days enriching my beliefs with this light green pagan feminine energy. I have danced with the goddess and shepherdess of Kildare through the wind in Ireland and felt her feminine energy.
On one trip to Ireland, I went to the Holy Well at Liscannor in County Clare near the Cliffs of Moher. There is a statute of St. Brigid (or St. Brigit or Brighid) next to the entrance of the grotto that contains the well. The statute is enclosed in a glass box that resembles a telephone booth. I knew then I could call upon her and so I did deiseal, which is an Irish word meaning to ambulate in a circle around a sacred center, moving in the direction of the sun’s passage. I prayed and laughed at the same time, for I was in an ancient place made holy by saturated prayers and the melding of the goddess and the saint. When I entered the grotto where the sound of water dripped in the well, I felt a presence so palpable that I had to kneel. The grotto was filled with yearnings, sorrow, and devotion in the form of rosaries, handwritten pleas for help, feathers, bits of yarn, a doll, and even a crutch. Ancient history, transformation, myths, and healing are associated with holy wells, but again, Ireland is full of sacred places whereby time and space grow thin and the Other world becomes real.
Later, there was a Mass and a ceili (Irish gathering with music and dance) at an American friend’s house near Ennis. It was a dedication, a sort of baptism, for against all odds she had bought an old cottage in Ireland on land of her ancestors. Today it is renovated and a lovely home for her to visit (and for me to visit, as well). It was a joyous celebration altogether. And it was there that I believe for the second time in my life, Mother Mary or maybe it was St. Brigid blinked at me. I looked up at the wall during the ceili and she was blinking to the beat of the music! It was a plaque of the saint with electric lights. Although it made me giggle, it was for joy and not for derision.
There is the Celtic year with seasons and festivals. I met Dolores Whelan at iBAM in Chicago in November and she is the author of, Ever Ancient, Ever New, Celtic Spirituality in the 21st Century. She quotes D.H. Lawrence, “Mankind has got to get back to the rhythm of the cosmos.” Dolores says, “Acknowledging the rhythm of life as it unfolds gives a dynamism and vibrancy to living and creates a sense of freshness and belonging.” The season of Imbolc begins on February 1st and thus begins new life and the murmurings of springtime being released from tight-fisted winter. Dolores Whelan writes, “Imbolc is synonymous with Brigid, Celtic goddess and saint, who embodies the energy of new life and of new beginnings.”
Norah McCabe in my book, Norah, The Making of an Irish-American Woman in 19th-Century New York, prays in front of a coal stove in Five Points, New York, a poor substitute for the hearth in Ireland,
“Brighid of the mantle encompass us, Lady of the Lambs protect us, Keeper of the Hearth, kindle us, Beneath your mantle, gather us. And restore us to memory…She wept for Sean, for the hearth in her home in Ireland, for the loss of St. Brighid who was only Mother Mary of Sorrows here in New York; but mostly she wept over ambitions that had become mired, and for the peeling back of the skin of her innocence, exposing her to the quagmires of herself.”
I carried holy water in a small bottle in my purse taken from the holy well at Liscannor and boarded the plane to return home from Ireland (pre-9/11) and this Wednesday as I honor St. Brigid and the season of Imbolc, I’ll refresh myself with a few drops and drop down to the earth to listen to the murmurings of springtime.