St Brigid of Kildare, Celtic Spirituality and Magherafelt
Home, sweet home... Magherafelt
I may have lived in England for almost 15 years, and it might have taken me a while to realise it, but I love my home town of Magherafelt in Northern Ireland. I genuinely really love it, and I miss it. If you were to ask me 'why?', I could probably say many things. At the minute there are great coffee shops, restaurants, pubs, sport and leisure facilities. It's a great wee shopping town with various supermarkets, boutiques, florists, a brilliant library and a Dunnes Stores (everyone loves Dunnes in Ireland!). The schools here are excellent, often featuring in the top spots in provincial and national league tables as well as winning various sporting accolades. I'm proudly a past pupil of Magherafelt Primary School and the Rainey Endowed School. It's in the heart of Mid Ulster, just a few miles from the shores of Lough Neagh and a few more, but not too many, from the stunning north coast of Ireland.
Well, now I've said all these nice things about Magherafelt, shall I tell you the real reason that I love it? Community.
Community is the heartbeat of Magherafelt
There is something so rich, deep and powerful about walking down the street and seeing people you've known all your life. It's being seen and being known. It's one of those 'everybody knows everybody' places, well sort of, but you get the gist. The people are warm and friendly, and you can mostly get a smile and a 'hello, how are you?' from just about anyone.
The town was a frequent target of terrorist attacks during The Troubles. My primary school was regularly evacuated due to its proximity to the town's police station and when a 500 lb van bomb went off in 1993 demolishing most of the town centre and taking 60% of other shops and businesses with it, it took years to rebuild and recover the town.
But it's a testament to the people of Magherafelt that the next day those who could, opened for business as usual, the community came together determined to unite against terrorism and just three days later the annual May Fair took place.
The community gathered
Leaping forward in time by 30 odd years, I'm now in my early forties and I can honestly say that the sense and experience of community in Magherafelt is an incredible thing. It's certainly something I appreciate so much more the older I get. I witnessed it powerfully when my father tragically died, it felt like the whole town had come out to pay their respects and bid him farewell. Business owners and staff put off lights, closed doors and lined the streets. The community gathered both with and for us, it was a beautiful thing.
The Three Spires town
When I was growing up I learned that Magherafelt was known for having 'the three spires'. In fact, I was a Cub and a Scout with the 'Three Spires Scout Group'. At multiple vantage points all around Magherafelt you can see the three spires sitting splendidly across the town. The 'spires' belong to St Swithin's Church, the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and First Magherafelt Presbyterian Church, three Christian faith communities that contribute in immeasurable ways to love and support the people of the town and surrounding areas through a whole host of initiatives and activities.
One place in particular that I love to visit with my mum is the Parish Centre in King Street. It's a community centre for the whole community and is an outreach of the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption. They have a fantastic cafe and a lively programme of events and activities. Yesterday, my mum and I popped in for some lunch and I was immediately aware of how busy it was. There was a buzz and I quickly realised that people were doing some sort of 'crafting' thing over on one side of the cafe where there was a table full of greenery. There were no available tables so my mum and I sat with a lady who she had known for years. As is usual, various people came over to welcome us and check that we had everything we needed, which obviously included tea, an Ulster Fry and chats about the typically bad Irish weather! And even still, after almost 18 months, there were people who shared their sorrow that my dad had died. Community through and through.
I asked someone what the people were making and they explained that they were making the St Brigid's Cross for St Brigid's feast day (today 1st February). Admittedly, I didn't realise that it was St Brigid's day, nor did I know much about her life or story, so I went over to chat with the people making these beautifully intricate green crosses.
They shared that St Brigid was known for spreading Christianity in Ireland and that people will often place the crosses in their homes as a form of 'blessing' or as an emblem of protection. My mum and I were gifted two beautiful St Brigid Crosses and I returned home, most intrigued, to immediately find out more about this saint.
Although not a lot is known about her, St Brigid is regarded as a matron saint of Ireland, the other patron saints being St Patrick and St Columba. She founded many monasteries in Ireland beginning with two monastic communities in Kildare (a first for women in Ireland) and led both men and women in communal religious life as an Abbess. She is known for her generosity, hospitality to strangers, peace-making, compassion for the poor, and her love for Christ.
In the little things and the huge things
As I read about Brigid, I couldn't help but think of Magherafelt, a community that reflects so much of what St Brigid embodied and promoted. I see schools engaged in serving the local community through supporting the elderly with scheduled phone calls to combat isolation and loneliness, or by visiting care homes, the disabled or vulnerable. A food bank and hope centre that serves those in crisis and poverty. A community that time and time again was struck by terrorism and tragedy yet resolved to be united and rebuild again. I think of the little things like the welcome and hospitality my mum and I receive each time we walk into the Parish Centre for a cup of tea and a bite to eat. Or when I take my mum to church and people who have known me all my life give me a wave and say 'hello'. And I think of the huge things like how this community 'showed up' and carried us in the hardest days and weeks of our lives.
Now, Magherafelt is certainly by no means perfect, but it's a special little place, with Christian community and people very much at the heart of the town. So on this, St Brigid's feast day, let's remember this Celtic saint who 1,500 years ago made an indelible mark on Christianity in Ireland and Celtic Spirituality, and let's think about how we can reflect the things she so deeply valued and demonstrated in her life in our own towns and communities.
Magherafelt, I think you're already doing quite a good job on that. Our town slogan says it all...
Magherafelt...never felt better.
Read David Cole's reflection from his book, 'Celtic Saints - 40 days of devotional readings' for St Brigid's day below...
Feast day: 1 February (d. 525)
The feast day of Brigid of Kildare, celebrated just before the Christian festival of lights, is also the first day of Imbolc (meaning something like ‘Ewe’s milk’), the beginning of the Celtic season of spring, passing from the darkness of the season of death (winter) and celebrating the coming of new life. Imbolc is a very feminine festival, with great emphasis on the importance of women in the community. Brigid of Kildare was well known as an embodiment of the Celtic traditions of both the anam chara (she is famed for saying that ‘a person without an anam chara is like a body without a head’) and generosity.
When Brigid was a young girl, her father was so afraid that she would make the family bankrupt by giving everything away that he tried to marry her off to a local chieftain. He took her to the chieftain in a beautiful carriage, and left her in it while he went to find the man.
As a sign of respect and peace to the chieftain, Brigid’s father left his sword in the carriage. While Brigid waited, a beggar came along, asking for alms. Brigid’s heart burst with compassion when she saw him, but she said she had nothing to give. As the beggar turned to leave, Brigid remembered her father’s sword with its gold-covered scabbard. Calling the beggar back, she gave the sword away. On the father’s return, he saw that his sword had gone and Brigid explained everything. When the chieftain understood that Brigid would also give away everything he owned, he refused to take her in marriage. Brigid’s father, at the end of his tether, allowed Brigid to leave and become a bride of Christ, which was all she had wanted.
Brigid was known as a spiritual midwife. Born in Ireland around the time that Patrick died, she is famous for being the person who ‘brought Christianity up’ in Ireland, after Patrick had brought it to birth there.
Brigid is also known for her great heart towards all who were spiritually open, and her many encounters with such people, including druids.
One famous story tells how she nursed a pagan chief to health and taught him about the love of Christ by weaving a cross from reeds. The ‘Brigid cross’ is a lovely interwoven square cross that many people put in places that are not used over the winter but will be used much in the spring and summer, as a blessing to that place and the earth.
Spend a few moments simply resting. Breathe gently and slowly. Become aware of the constant presence of God which envelops you and permeates you.
Brigid was a person with great generosity of heart, who saw the need of all, great and lowly, and desired to give them all she could. She saw the importance of total dedication to God in all she did, and believed that no one, despite what they themselves might have thought, was beyond her help.
How do you express the generosity of God? Does your heart of generosity extend more toward people you know, or those who are Christians, than it does toward strangers and people of other faiths?
Spend time with God now, dwelling upon these questions.
He, desiring to justify himself, asked Jesus, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ Jesus answered, ‘A certain man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who both stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. By chance a certain priest was going down that way. When he saw him, he passed by on the other side. In the same way a Levite also, when he came to the place, and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he travelled, came where he was. When he saw him, he was moved with compassion, came to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. He set him on his own animal, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. On the next day, when he departed, he took out two denarii, and gave them to the host, and said to him, “Take care of him. Whatever you spend beyond that, I will repay you when I return.” Now which of these three do you think seemed to be a neighbour to him who fell among the robbers?’ He said, ‘He who showed mercy on him.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Go and do likewise.’
May you know the generosity of God poured out upon you.
May you not only receive God’s generosity, but also be a
channel for it to flow out into the world.
May you express this generosity without distinction, to
stranger and friend.
Celtic Saints: 40 days of devotional readings
The life stories of the Celtic saints are inspirational. They demonstrate great and unassuming faith, often in the face of insurmountable difficulties. In Celtic Saints David Cole draws us to relate our own life journey and developing relationship with God into the life story of the Celtic saint of the day. A corresponding biblical text and blessing encourages and motivates us to transform our lives for today’s world in the light of such historic faith.
£8.99 ISBN 978 0 85746 950 2
Available now at brfonline.org.uk/celtic-saints
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