BRIGID’S CROSS: meaning and history of ancient Celtic symbol

Discover the mysterious meaning and history of this enduring Irish symbol.

Brigid’s cross: meaning and history of ancient Celtic symbol.

If you have ever been to an Irish home, you may have noticed a small cross made from rushes hanging above a doorway.

This detailed structure is known as Brigid’s cross, and it is traditionally hung in Irish homes on 1 February to protect its inhabitants from illness and evil.

But how did this custom come about, and who was Brigid? Much mystery remains about Brigid’s cross, and we’re here to explore these questions with you.

Ireland Before You Die’s fun facts about St. Brigid and the Brigid’s cross:

  • A Brigid’s cross is now recognised as one of the national symbols of Ireland.
  • The origin of the cross links back to an Irish saint, but it can also be traced back further, to an ancient Celtic goddess who has been celebrated in Ireland for millennia.
  • Brigid’s crosses are still deeply embedded in Irish culture, with most Irish children learning how to make them in primary school.
  • St. Brigid is one of the three patron saints of Ireland, alongside St. Patrick and St. Colmcille. In 2023, she was finally honoured with a bank holiday on her feast day, 1 February.

What is a Brigid’s cross and what is its meaning? ­– a cross variant made of straw

A Brigid's cross made from reeds.
Credit: Flickr/ Bart Everson

Brigid’s cross is a variant of the cross, most often made of straw or rushes. The shape of the cross can vary greatly, but the most common type features a four-spoked cross with a diamond centre.

The meaning of the cross will differ depending on who you ask (there are both Christian and pagan beliefs about this). The cross is thought to bring luck, and keep away illness and evil.

But who is the cross invoking that could supply such power? The answer to this is not so straightforward.

Who is St. Brigid of Kildare? – the patroness saint of Ireland

A mosaic tribute to Saint Brigid.
Credit: Flickr / Lawrence OP

Many Christians link the custom to St. Brigid of Kildare, and it is on her feast day that the cross is traditionally woven and erected.

Brigid was born in 451 AD, and the details of her life are sparse but much debated. It is said that she is the daughter of Dubthach, the Leinster Chieftain and a woman called Brocca.

The story goes that once Dubthach found out Brocca was pregnant, he sold her into slavery at the hands of a druid landowner. Many theorise that her mother was also baptised by St. Patrick.

When Brigid was ten, it is said that she had converted the druid to Christianity and that she was sent back to her father.

Later on in her life, aged 40, Brigid founded ‘the Church of the Oak’, a monastery that still exists today in County Kildare. Beginning as a holy nunnery, it soon grew to become the first double abbey, housing nuns and monks.

So, how does the cross come into it? The story goes that Brigid sat at the bedside of a dying old pagan chieftain. It is said that Brigid picked up some rushes that lay on the floor and began to construct a cross.

The chieftain reportedly asked what she was doing. Once she described the meaning of the cross, the chieftain asked to be baptised as a Christian before he died.

Goddess Brigid and the ancient celebration of Imbolc – Celtic origins

Neopagans celebrating Imbolc.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Brigid’s cross can also be traced back even further in history, to an ancient pre-Christian goddess.

This ancient goddess, Brigid, appears across many cultures, but is most often associated with Ireland. She is a goddess of poetry, protection, healing, and fertility. In fact, she shares many attributes with St. Brigid of Kildare, including a feast day on 1 February.

This day was known as Imbolc to ancient Irish people and marked the end of winter and the beginning of spring, falling halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

It appears Brigid has been honoured since time immemorial in Ireland, and it has been argued that Brigid is another example of how Christians, seeking to convert pagans, used an aspect of their beliefs to aid conversion.

This is also seen with other gaelic festivals, such as Samhain on 31 October.

Traditionally a time to honour the dead, it seemed that ancient Irish people were not quick to forsake their deeply held customs and beliefs, and so Samhain became All Souls Day and All Saints Day in an attempt to bring these customs in line with Christian beliefs.

The same is said about St. Brigid of Kildare, who seems to have taken on many of the associations of the beloved goddess, but in the form of a saintly woman.

In terms of the Brigid’s cross, it is said that this custom predated Christianity, too. However, the structure (also made from rushes) was actually an effigy of Brigid herself, and hung in the home to invoke the deity and her blessings.

RELATED READ: CELTIC SYMBOLS and Meanings: top 10 explained.

Notable mentions

A Brigid's cross made of iron attached to a headstone.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org (Philipp M. Moore)

Materials: Brigid’s crosses made from rushes are one of the most iconic Irish designs, but they can be constructed of many different materials. If you can’t get to a bog (where rushes traditionally grow), paper straws will do the trick!

There are also some beautiful metal and wooden Brigid’s Cross around.

Shrines: As well as the shrine in Kildare, where Irish nuns still keep the patroness of Ireland’s spirit alive, there is also a shrine to Brigid in Faughart, just a short drive from Dundalk in County Louth. It is said that this is the birthplace of St. Brigid.

Slavery connections: Due to her connection with slavery and servants, Brigid (also known as Mary of the Gael) is associated with protection for those who are exploited. She is also associated with motherhood and midwives, as well as her healing abilities.

Imbolc: Imbolc is one of the four ‘cross-quarter’ fire festivals of ancient Ireland. On these sacred days, feasts were enjoyed, and great bonfires were erected on hilltops across the country.

These festivals included Imbolc (1 February), Beltaine (1 May), Lughnasadh (1 August) and Samhain (31 October/1 November).

READ MORE: Top 4 annual CELTIC FESTIVALS you need to know about.

Your questions answered about Brigid’s cross

If you still have questions about Brigid’s cross, read on! In this section, we answer some of our readers’ most frequently asked questions about this topic, including those that appear most often in online searches.

Someone holding a Brigid's cross made of reeds.
Credit: Ireland’s Content Pool/ Tourism Ireland

How to make St. Brigid’s Cross?

Brigid’s crosses are traditionally made on 1 February (Imbolc). They require roughly 16 reeds and four rubber bands or pieces of string. You might also need some scissors to cut your reeds to size.

To start, hold up one of the reeds vertically and fold a second one in half. Place the first reed in the centre of the folded second one.

Ensure you hold the centre firmly. Next, turn the reeds 90 degrees anti-clockwise so that the second reed is now vertical.

Continue to do this until all the reeds are used, before tying the bands/string to each end to secure them.

What does Brigid’s cross symbolise?

Brigid’s cross symbolises protection from evil and exploitation, the end of winter, and the beginning of spring.

What is the story behind St. Brigid’s cross?

It is said that St. Brigid of Kildare constructed the cross and used it to explain Christianity to a dying pagan chieftain. He is said to have then asked to be converted to Christianity before his death.

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