“Winter in Ireland means dark and rain and mud and chill that aches in your bones. It means short wet days and long wet nights. Cold that runs damply down the sides of stone walls. Ashen fields, rubbly with last year’s hay. Winter, which began as the sun lost its vigor at Samhain, still holds sway as the land nears Imbolc, or so the cold and the damp proclaim.
But spring is near, near as sheep who materialize out of the fog near spiky outcroppings of granite. Lambs kick within the ewes, hidden as spring on a foggy winter morning. The bitter chill and the ashen fields give no clue to the nearness of a new season but, like the lambs, spring is “in the belly” of winter, for that is the meaning of the word Imbolc. Soon spring, in all its robust fragility and wild insouciant joy, arrives as suddenly as birth which, like death, is always sudden no matter how fervently anticipated or feared.
Imbolc is La Feile Bridghe, the day of Brigit, celebrated each year in ritual in Kildare, the town historically associated with the Celtic goddess and saint. The festival focuses on the largest of the area’s 32 holy wells, where a tiny wooden bridge leads into a grassy sacred precinct. Miniature standing stones link a deep rock-circled well with its outlet in a stream into which shallow stone steps descend. Brigit, sculpted in an old-fashioned nun’s habit, stands in a stone grotto among coins and flowers and other offerings.
People come to the holy wells continually throughout the year, in groups and singly, for traditional healing rituals. But the greatest crowds arrive for Imbolc, when Brigidine sisters sponsor a vigil at the well, which I was honored to attend several years ago. Hundreds join in, many coming from other parts of Ireland to attend at Brigit’s central shrine for her most important holiday. As we gathered in the late evening, we were greeted by a bonfire of gorsewood, welcome in the still-wintry chill. But that was not the only fire that lit the dark well precinct, for the women of Ch?irde Bhr?de — “heart of Brigit,” the local laywomen’s association — had placed hundreds of candles on the pathways and stone steps, outlining the well and the spring and the pathways. The rushing waters caught and reflected the candlelight, so that the whole precinct shimmered with light.”