Winter can be an unforgiving time in Ireland given the precarious nature of Atlantic weather systems. So it’s with great relief we welcome spring on 1st February. For our ancestors who lived in a more agrarian society this date was the start of a new farming season and celebrations were held in honour of the Celtic goddess Brighid who was said to have agricultural fertility and protection as her function.
Since the arrival of Christianity to Ireland in the 4th Century the first day of February is celebrated as St. Brigid’s Day (Lá Fhéile Bríde), named after the saint that had a similar role as her Celtic goddess equivalent.
The locality of Kilgobnet in Mid-Kerry continues the custom of welcoming the spring by engaging in The Biddy, a tradition where members of the community travel from house to house to entertain local residents. All music, song and dance is of the traditional Irish variety. In essence, it’s a travelling carnival and is said to have originated from the pagan festival of Imbolg, one of the four ancient Gaelic festivals.
The Kilgobnet National School Biddy which features in this blog post functions as a fundraising activity for school running costs. At this point I must declare my bias as I’m the Chairperson of the school’s Board of Management. The school’s 5th and 6th classes have their own Biddy groups and they fund-raise for charities.
The Biddy is led by a captain who decides on the route and houses to visit, and asks permission to enter each house. In some cases the group gets a specific invite to a house or public venue. The Captain carries the group’s sign and is followed by a person holding the Biddy doll, an effigy of St. Brigid. Once inside, the group entertains the residents and departs with a donation.
The Biddy costume comprises of white trousers and shirt with green and red trimmings. Participants attach a small St. Brigid’s cross over the heart position on their shirts. The costume’s pièce de résistance is the straw Biddy hat, the making of which is a craft in itself.
Weather is no impediment to this Biddy group although excess rain can damage musical instruments. Kilgobnet’s Biddy comprises of 20-30 people and the camaraderie is obvious. The enthusiasm in both participation and in receiving the Biddy is immense as is the stamina needed by its members to entertain for hours on end.
Such a unique endeavour doesn’t go unnoticed with the Kilgobnet group featuring in mainstream media, most notably on RTE’s main news bulletin. Sean Hurley of Radio Kerry accompanied the group on the same night as I did for his Kerrywide show, the podcast of which is here.
It’s astonishing to see a sizeable amount of artistic talent in an area with such a small population but this is the result of Kilgobnet’s holistic school ethos. Above all, activities such as the Biddy are part and parcel of our heritage and culture, and the preservation of this tradition is a testament to the strength and spirit of this small but big-hearted community. Long may this community and tradition last.
The Lore of Ireland: An encyclopaedia of Myth, Legend and Romance by Dáithí Ó hÓgáin is an excellent all-round guide to Irish festivals and traditions.
Killorglin’s Imbolg Festival is a gathering of local Biddy groups. You can check out the festival’s parade on my YouTube channel.