How to make a Saint Brigid’s Cross:

Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw (but feel free to make them from paper or whatever is available to you. For examples of paper crosses see folklore.ie here). These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigid’s cross. They were typically nailed to the thatch of the roof, over doors and in animal byres to protect from fire, lightning and fairy influence. To read more about the traditions of Saint Brigid’s day traditions, including more about the cross please see my article here .

Anne O’ Dowd’s book Straw, Hay and Rushes also has an excellent section on the crosses, including photos and information on the museum examples and types.

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What you will need:

Fresh rushes (or straw)

Scissors

Elastic bands or string

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Trim the rushes to about 30 or 40 centimeters, depending on how big you want your cross. Pick the best rushes from the bunch.

Take a single rush for the center piece. Take a second rush and squeeze the middle and fold in half, like the photo below:

Now wrap this around the first rush like so:

Bend another rush and place it as follows (Making sure to always hold the center tight to stop it all unravelling):

Again, bend another rush as place going this direction:

Now, TURN THE CROSS ANTI-CLOCKWISE once. The rush you just placed that was facing to left should now be facing down. (If you think of a clock, it should go from 9 to 6). Now bend another rush and place it as follows:

Now every single time you add a rush, turn it anti-clockwise once and keep building up the pattern like below ( so add rush, turn, add rush, turn, add rush, turn until you are happy with the size of the cross):

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Before placing the last piece, loosen a piece like the photo below and thread the final piece through it, placing it the same way you did the previous steps. Then pull the piece tight. This will hold the hold the whole thing together for you to tie off the ends, and will keep the pattern woven tighter:

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It should now hold together for you to tie the ends off and trim:

Hopefully this was of help for you and you should now have your own Brigid’s cross to protect your home or animals. Don’t forget to follow on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/Irishfolklore and feel free to leave pics of your completed crosses in the comments of the facebook post. Happy Saint Brigid’s Day!

And if perhaps you do admire,

That this great house did ne’er take fire,

When sparks ,as thicks as stars in the sky,

About the house did often fly,

And reach’d the sapless wither’d thatch,

Which dry spunge the fire would catch,

And where no chimney was erected,

Where sparks and flames might be directed

St Bridget’s cross hung over the door ,

Which did the house from fire secure

NFC Iml 1148:465 + Iml 482:172

St Patrick: False Myths, Folklore and traditions of his Feast day

Image result for saint patrick stained glass

In this article, I ultimately aim to speak a bit of the historical Patrick, the mythological Patrick and to share some of the traditions associated with his feast day. Also due to the false information that proliferates the internet (mostly propagated by a select bunch of neo-pagans who favour sensationalist stories over actual research). I intend to address some of those myths, namely the whole “All Snakes Day” and “the snakes he banished were a metaphor for the Druids” nonsense that pops up at this time of the year all over the internet. (caveat: I have nothing against pagans, I’m a practicing pagan myself, I just have an issue with the ill-informed, new age, fluffy bunny idiots who refuse to do proper research, who believe everything on the internet and who make stuff up as they go along).

As many know St. Patrick is regarded as the primary patron saint of Ireland. His elevated status to patron saint is mostly due to the falsely attributed fact of him introducing Christianity to Ireland (it should also be noted that his primacy was not always the case. It would appear that St. Brigid was the most venerated saint until the patriarchal Roman Church eclipsed the Celtic Church). In my opinion the feminine should be embraced considering Ireland herself is considered feminine and named after the Goddess Éirú, but that is a story for another day! (see my other article about Brigid and her origin as a pan-celtic Goddess) . It should also be noted that while spring time is intrinsically bound up with the feminine, i.e. birth and fertility, it is no coincidence that a powerful male character such as Patrick and his feast was imposed around the time of the vernal equinox.

One of the biggest falsely attributed “facts” to the saint is the belief of him bringing Christianity to Ireland. This new religion was not unknown to natives when Patrick returned here to preach the word of the new God. The traditional date for Patrick’s return to Ireland is 432 AD. Paladius had been sent here a year or so before as a bishop to “a people who believed in Christ”, meaning that there was already a number of converted people here prior to Patrick’s return. There were also several pre-patrician saints here many years prior to his coming, such as Declan of Ardmore. Additionally, Irish colonies in Wales and Cornwall would have had contact with early Christianity in Britain and brought it back over. Many would argue that Patrick never moved much further away from his seat in Armagh, which goes against multiple stories of him travelling the length and breadth of the country.

The Historical Patrick

Not much is known of the real Patrick and the only surviving writings generally attributed to him are his Confessio and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (both can be read on the confession.ie website. Here you will find commentaries on the works and also view the extant manuscripts). Patrick was not, as many believe, Irish but was in fact Romano-British. He came from an ecclesiastical family where his father and grandfather were both deacon and priest. He was captured by Irish raiders somewhere around his sixteenth year and brought back to Ireland as a slave to be a swineherd. It was here through vigorous praying and fasting where he got his message from god and had visitations by angels. He would escape back to Britain only to return later to convert the populous. In his own writings (if they are indeed his) he comes across as simple and humble, a far cry from how he was later portrayed in his hagiography as the Druid battling, demon smiting, miracle performer. Unfortunately, it is from these much later pseudo-historical works that many people draw their “facts” about Patrick.

The Mythological Patrick

The earliest Saints’ Lives of Patrick did not emerge until centuries after his death. Muirchú, a successor of Cogitosis (who had written the life of St. Brigid), wrote one of the Lives and Bishop Tírechán wrote the other (Tíreachán’s was more of a collectania than a chronological life). Both are highly fantastical but offer differing attitudes towards Druids especially and are heavy with biblical allegory when relating to Patrick battling his pagan adversaries, namely the Druids and the staunchly pagan King Loegaire.  This brings me to the point I mentioned above: the false belief that Patrick slaughtered and wiped out the Druids here in Ireland. There are a plethora of online articles, blogs and YouTube videos of ill-informed, un-educated, idiotic neo-pagans crying that their ancestors were murdered in the multitudes by Patrick. A “fact” that is utterly unsubstantiated and unfounded. Their protestations of not wearing green, calling it “All Snakes Day” and wearing black are utterly ridiculous. There was no Irish pagan genocide, no proof of any great violent Druid purge in Ireland, it simply doesn’t exist outside hagiography.  These are the same sort of people who falsely claim that the snakes that Patrick banished were in fact a metaphor for pagans or Druids. This again is untrue.  The story of the banishment of the snakes doesn’t appear until much later (The imagery of Patrick banishing all snakes from Ireland stems from a separate Life of the Saint, written by Jocelyn of Furness late in the twelfth century) and in all of the Saints’ Lives, Druids are mentioned by name and never in a cryptic matter so this sudden use of a metaphor makes no sense. There are other instances in hagiography where a serpent is banished at a lake by a Saint (cf. Colmcille and the Loch Ness monster and St.Finbarr and the Péist at Gougane Barra) which could be looked at as the new religion banishing the old but in this particular instance with Patrick it just does not fit or make sense. Paganism and Druids did not just disappear overnight when Patrick arrived. For centuries later they pop up in the manuscripts in ways that show us they were, without a doubt, still around. A hymn protecting against the “spells of wrights and Druids” corroborates this as does the inclusion of Druids in Brehon Law texts (some centuries after Patrick’s death). Just as the new religion had repackaged many of the earlier traditions, it appears that the Druids took a similar approach and repackaged themselves as the professional poet class, the “filidh” (the etymology of which is originally thought to have meant “seer”). These poets were second only to the king and continued to have a very high status up until the battle of Kinsale and the so-called “Flight of the Earls” in the 1600’s.  My ranting aside, I will now share with you the traditions associated with the feast of the saint.

The Traditions of his Feast Day.

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St Patrick’s cross

In the not so distant past, before all the green beer and dying rivers green (or any other plastic paddy tomfoolery) there were many traditions associated with the day. One of the most recognisable to still survive would be the wearing of shamrock. I will be using some examples from the National Folklore Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) now digitised on Ducas.ie. This was a project run in the school year of 1937-8 where schools across the country tasked the children with collecting folklore from relatives and neighbours. This also helped Identify the richest areas to collect folklore for the larger national collection that was to follow. In addition, I will be using some examples from Kevin Danaher’s excellent book “The Year in Ireland” which focuses on the calendar customs of Ireland. Some of the traditions are as follows:

St. Patrick’s Day Crosses and wetting the shamrock

An entry in the NFSC notes that : all girls used to wear crosses on St. Patrick’s Day to honour the saint. They took 2 pieces of stiff cardboard, one longer than the other, covered the pieces with nice silk and sewn them together in the shape of a cross. They would collect the silk or satin for a few months before and as the time drew closer they’d sew them onto the cross. It was worn on left arm on the day and for the whole week after in school. There wasn’t any meas (respect) on any girl who didn’t have one. The brighter the colours the better and more proud the girls were of them. The biggest horse fair in Munster used to be held on St. Patrick’s Day but was changed to the 18th due to St. Patrick’s Day being a national holiday. A grandmother of a the collector used to go to the crossroads to watch all the horses galloping passed and it was “as good as being at the races”.  All the grown-up boys and girls used to attend the fair as well as newlywed couples who would attend in their wedding garments. “Every tinker in Munster used to attend”. They would occupy their time by trading. Some [traveller] families specialized in selling horses while others dealt in donkeys (NFSC, Vol. 0448:198). Although this account only mentions girls, a similar cross was wore by boys.

Another account of the cross mentions that the crosses were made in school the day before. Each child carried an egg into school. The yoke was used to colour the yellow part, while the green part was coloured by the juice of some plant. If any eggs were left over they were sold and sweets were bought for the children with the money. Along with the badges they wore shamrock. Men wore shamrock in their caps until Palm Sunday when they wore palm instead (NFSC, Vol. 0571:197).

Kevin Danaher, the respected folklorist says that both the crosses and “wetting the shamrock” (going for a drink,) are two of the oldest traditions that can be traced back the furthest. St. Patrick’s Day was also a cheat day during Lent which allowed for indulgence. (In fact eating meat on the day as part of Lenten indulgence was mentioned in the 12th century life by Jocelyn). This is attested a in an account (c.1681) by an English traveller, Thomas Dinley. He says: “The 17th day of March yearly is St Patrick’s, an immoveable (fixed date) feast when the Irish of all stations and condicions wore crosses in their hats, some of pins, some of green ribbon, and the vulgar superstitious wear shamrouges, 3 leaved grass, which they likewise eat  (they say) to cause a sweet breath. The common people and servants also demand their Patricks groat of their masters, which they goe expressly to town, though half a dozen miles off, to spend, where sometimes it amounts to a piece of 8 or cobb or piece, and very few of the zealous are found sober at night” (Danaher, 1996:58).  This tradition was also found outside Ireland within the Irish diaspora and It was recorded in 1713 in London by Dean Swift. His account mentions that he has seen so many people wearing crosses on the day that he thought “all the world was Irish”. These types of cross eventually died out (but many examples survive in museums), eventually giving way to the harp shaped badge and green ribbon rosette that were common in more modern times (Danaher,1996:63).  The “wetting of the shamrock” expression comes from the practice of dropping the shamrock in the final drink of the evening and when the glass has been emptied, the shamrock is removed and tossed over the left shoulder.

Another entry in the NFSC recounts that “On St. Patrick’s Day the people wear shamrocks and long ago they used wear a black sally cross on the right shoulder” (NFSC, Vol. 0547:81). It gives no further explanation of this type of cross but another account in the NFSC possibly sheds some light on this. It says that “one custom that is dying out is the making of a cross on the sleeve with a stick that is partly burned” (NFSC, Vol. 0640:40). This tradition is further elaborated on in an entry from Kilkenny. It says that the head of the family burned a hazel rod and marked a cross on each person’s arm. The significance of it being a hazel rod is explained as being due to the fact that the snakes were banished by Patrick with a hazel rod (NFSC, Vol. 0868:046).

We see a number of the traditions listed on the following short account, likewise found in the NFSC: “On that day Mass is celebrated in each church, and hymns to St. Patrick are sung. Each man, woman and child is wearing a bunch of shamrocks. Some are wearing green harps and badges of St. Patrick. After Mass, crowds of young men playing bands, and carrying banners, march through the towns, followed by admiring crowds. That night Ceilidhs, and Irish concerts are held. Boxes of shamrocks are sent to our absent friends in foreign lands” (NFSC,Vol.1037:145).

However you celebrate your St. Patrick’s Day, have a good one! I hope you enjoyed learning about the feast of the patron saint of Ireland! la fhéile pádraig shona daoibh (happy Saint Patricks day)

Saint Brigid’s Day Traditions

The first of February sees the feast day of one of the premier saints in the Irish tradition, Saint Brigid. Brigid is second in line to the more well Known Saint Patrick but evidence points to the fact that she may well have been higher up the scale till the patriarchal Roman Church and its customs eclipsed that of the “Celtic” church. While the historical personage of Patrick can be proved to have existed, the existence of Brigid lies in much murkier waters with no writings surviving from her time. We do however have no shortage of “saints lives” pertaining to Brigid, the earliest of which was written by Cogitosus (the predecessor of Muirchú, Patrick’s biographer) in an attempt to gain primacy for the church of Kildare over Armagh (Brigid over Patrick). The church later reviewed many of the fifth and sixth century Irish saints, demoting a number of them so they were no longer “calendar saints”, that being saints who have a feast day (O’Cathasaigh,1982:76). Brigid and Patrick both survived this cut with Patrick better fitting the patriarchal model of the Roman Church and becoming the premier saint of the country. There is ample proof however that Brigid is most likely a continuation of the earlier goddess Brigid/ Brigantia who was worshipped around the country and beyond. The tutelary Goddess of Leinster became its tutelary saint and prominent Celticists such as Myles Dillon, Nora Chadwick and Prionsios MacCana infer that Brigid is the personification of the Celtic goddess.  Synchretism like this is not uncommon, especially in Ireland, where the new faith adopted practices and beliefs of the pagans in order to ease the conversion. Because of this the saint took on many of the attributes of the earlier Goddess. It is no coincidence either that her feast day coincides with the ancient festival of Imbolc, the start of spring in the ancient Irish calendar. In this article I will be looking at the saint and of course some of the plethora of traditions that are associated with Saint Brigid’s day.

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Photo credit: Megalithic Ireland

Brigid is traditionally said to have been the abbess of a monastery in Kildare where her and her nuns tended a perpetual fire, recorded as a perpetual “ashless fire” according to Geraldus Cambrensis  in 1196 (O’Cathasaigh,1982:82). Liminality is a recurrent theme with the character of Brigid. Born at a liminal time in a liminal place, She is said to have been born on the threshold of a door (neither within or without the house) and at the breaking of dawn (neither day or night). This liminality can also be seen in her association with a red-eared white cow, an animal always associated with the otherworld and the Daoine Sídhe (fairies). Until fairly recently the cult of the saint remained relatively intact across the country but with some various regional differences (O’Cathasaigh,1982:87). Sean O Suilleabhain, the archivist of the National Folklore Collection, recorded many pilgrimages to holy wells, sacred streams and ruins for the saint. The biggest of these is to a shrine in the townland of Faughart, Co. Louth (the supposed birthplace of the saint). Here the cult of the saint still survives and flourishes to this day. Also in Faughart there was mention of the ruins of an ancient church to be found in The Ordnance Survey Letters (1836). The church is mentioned as “Teampull Brighde Na hAirde” and also mentioned is “Brigid’s Stone”. The stone is most likely the base of a high cross. What is interesting is that the hill has much earlier pagan associations with megalithic tombs, souterrains, and raths in the area (O’Cathasaigh,1982:90). Also to be found in the area are rag bushes with many offerings left at them.

As well as Brigid’s Stone there are also a number of other stones associated with her. Stones in the area feature marks that tell of a story when she tried to escape a suitor and plucked out one of her eyes to make herself less attractive. The marks on these stones recount every movement of the saint throughout this tale and go by names such as the headstone, hoof-mark stone, the waist stone and the eye stone (the one that healed the eye she had taken out). The etiological tales (i.e tales explaining the origin of something, especially unusual features of the landscape) explaining the marks on stones are plentiful throughout the country (such marks are not unique to Ireland and can be found elsewhere (cf. the knee marks of saint Peter and Paul outside the church of saint Francis in Rome where they prayed to defeat the magician Simon Magus). Due to the durability and impenetrability of stone these marks are often attributed to supernatural or superhuman characters as they alone are capable of changing the surface of the stones by touching them. These marks are often found attributed to otherworldly women or heroes when found on standing stones and are frequently attributed to saints from the early Celtic church such as the case above with Brigid (oftentimes to emphasise the power of the new faith), when dealing with the hollows of ballaun stones and such. Early saints often left marks on boulders from knees, hands heads etc. This tradition is especially prevalent in Leinster where the stones are often called Gloonan stones (stemming from the Irish word Glúin for knee). Tradition holds that many of the depressions of these stones hold curative powers when the accumulated water gathered from the hollows is used. (Zucchelli,2016: 90).

The feast/ festival and its traditions

As with many important feasts and festivals in the Irish calendar, the eve of the festival is just as crucial, if not more so, than the day itself. The traditions of the feast have been recorded in both the National Folklore Collection (hereafter NFC) and the Schools Collection (hereafter NFSC) with others extant to this day.

A sod or two was often turned in a tillage field. Wind direction on the eve of the festival was carefully noted as the prevailing wind during the coming year. The day of the festival itself should show signs of improving weather but if it was too good it was an omen of bad weather to come. In some areas, especially in parishes dedicated to the saint, only work that was strictly necessary was carried out and in some areas of Kerry and west Cork any kind of work that involved the turning of wheels was avoided. In other regions both ploughing and smithwork fell under this ban.

Also, on the eve of the festival (31st Jan), called Brídeóg Night in some areas, the children of

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Brídeóg

the district went out from door to door. They would disguise themselves in old clothes or in their own clothes turned inside out. They would mask their face with pieces of cloth or curtains, sometimes using straw or rush hats to keep the veils on. The Brídeóg, called miss biddy in this instance, was a doll made from old rags or a butter churn dressed up. The person recounting this tale mentions that in this case a turnip was carved and painted with soot. The groups of young people were divided into two groups by age: 8-13 and 13-20. They would play music at each house to receive money or sweets (NFSC,Vol.0126:270). A rhyme of some description was said as the door was answered. This again varied to some degree by district but was fundamentally the same. In Leckanvy, Co. Mayo the rhyme went as follows:

“Here comes poor Brigid both deaf and blind,

Put your hand in your pocket and give her a coin

If you haven’t a penny, a half penny will do

If you haven’t a halfpenny god bless you”

(NFSC,VOL.1038:107)

Probably one of the most recognisable traditions of Saint Brigid’s feast is the “Brigid’s cross”. I have a tutorial on how to make them here

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Brigid’s Cross

These were and still are traditionally made from either reeds or straw. These were prepared on the eve of the feast in a highly ritualised manner. Depending on the region these vary in complexity. The simplest resembling the characteristic four armed Brigids cross (some 3 legged varieties are to be found in the north and the more complex containing up to 30 lozenges, crosspieces or lattices. These diamond or lozenge crosses are found in all provinces but are most commonly found in Connaught and Munster (O’Danaher, 1972:16).On St Brigid’s Eve a member of the family would gather rushes and leave them at the door. At nightfall a member of the family would go outside and call to the people in the house to let Brigid in. They all shout a welcome while on their knees and this is repeated 3 times. The family then made crosses from the rushes and the following day holy water was sprinkled on them. The crosses are thought to protect against lightning, fire and protect animals from diseases (NFSC,Vol.1048:197). T.G.F Paterson recorded that in 1955 in Armagh that the custom of making crosses was dying out. He also mentions that the reeds for the crosses were to be pulled and on no account cut. The household had a special meal that evening (called Brigid’s tea/supper) featuring pancakes (Paterson,1955:17). A sheaf of oats or cake was thrown at the door to vanquish hunger but a second was left outside for the saint or a hungry traveller. An abundance of butter and milk could be found on the table (Cathasaigh,1982:88). In times gone by there were no ceilings inside the houses so it was common to attach the crosses to the inner side of the thatch with new ones being added year after year. When they could be no longer preserved they should under no circumstances be thrown away. They were to be either buried (to bestow a blessing on the crops) or burned in the fire. Giving them as gifts was said to put a blessing on the maker and their welfare was increased by the gift of bestowal and friendships would be strengthened in the donor and recipient (Paterson,1955:18). One of the earliest references to the cross is from a poem from 1735 that illustrates the power that the crosses were said to have. The poem goes as follows:

“St Bridget’s cross hung over door

Which did the house from fire secure

O Gillo thought, O powerfull charm

To keep a house from taking harm;

And tho’ the dogs and servants slept,

By Bridgets care the house was kept.”

This belief in the protection against fire, and also lightning, still persists today. It was also believe that they had the ability to ward off disease and that evil spirits were unable to enter the house while they were hung over the door. In some districts rushlights were made from the excess and lit in honour of the saint while in parts of Antrim a tradition was recorded where the excess rushes were fashioned into a ring and hung on the spinning wheel to bring a blessing on its work for the coming year (Danaher, 1972:18).

Some other traditions, recorded by Nuala McGinty, in the Schools collection are that every person working at sea take their clothes outside and shake them saying “Bratóg Bríde”. No one should go outside after dark and as well as making crosses people tie wreaths around their head to prevent headaches for the year. They kneel and pray while asking her to come in. They say the rosary after making the crosses (NFSC,Vol.1083:56).

Yet another common practice spanning many regions is the of Brat Bríde. This practice involves leaving a piece of

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Brat bride

cloth or ribbon outside before dawn to collect dew. This was carefully kept aside (as it was believed to have curative powers). The brat, often a tie, belt or braces were left out and worn by men whenever they engaged in any dangerous work for protection. The ribbon would be hung on the door so the saint would touch it or left outside. It was particularly useful against pains in the head such as headache, earache or toothache (O’Danaher,1972:33)

In her book Festival of Lughnasa, Maire MacNeill says that St Brigid’s feast as well as that of Bealtine and Samhain are feasts that can be held in the dwelling place. They are important to the social unit of the household. In the case of Brigid, there is much effort in preparing the household and there is a high level/ atmosphere of expectation on the eve of the feast. A symbolic extra place might be set for the visiting saint or a bed of straw made. Ashes are smoothed over and made flat and surrounded by a rolled up cloth to stop them being disturbed by wind. They are inspected in the morning to look for the marks of the wand of bride or especially the footprints. The footprints meant that Brigid was there overnight and they, the household, were especially favoured. They could expect an increase in their household, field, crops or flock. If there was no sign it was seen that they had offended her and they would burn incense and offer an oblation. This oblation was generally a cockerel buried alive at a junction of three streams (O’ Catháin,1992:8). Scholarship strongly implies that the goddess Brigid functioned as a household protector (O’Cathasigh,1982:72). This also seems to point to Christian-pagan synchronism and can be seen in the prayer to the saint to protect house when banking down the fire at night.

These are not by any means an exhaustive list of the traditions associated with the saint and her feast but I hope they illustrate the importance of the festival in the Irish calendar. Thank you for taking the time to read and I hope it kept your interest. Feel free to comment and share.

Bibliography

NFSC, Vol.0126:270, Collector: Rita Cunney, corrower, Mayo,Informant:Mr +Mrs Cunney, Corrower, Co.Mayo

NFSC,Vol>1048:197,Informant Hugh Melly(70), tullycleave, Ardara.

Ó Catháin.S, Hearth-Prayers and Other Traditions of Brigit: Celtic Goddess and Holy Woman, The Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, Vol. 122 (1992), pp. 12-34.

O’Cathasaigh, Donal. “The Cult of Brigid: A Study of Pagan-Christian Syncretism in Ireland.” In Mother Worship: Theme and Variations. Ed. James J. Preston. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Paterson.T.G.F, Harvest knots and Brigids Crosses,ULSTER FOLKLIFE 1955.

Zucchelli.C (2016), Sacred Stones of Ireland, Collins press.

Danaher.K (1976), The Year in Ireland, mercier press.

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