Today marks the festival day of Imbolc, a pagan Gaelic festival celebrating the beginning of Spring. The date has been Christianised as the feast day of St. Bridget, one of Irelands better known Saints, who has inherited much of the folklore associated with the Goddess Brigid. The word Imbolc probably derives from the Irish ‘i mbolg’ meaning “in the belly”, which is apt considering Bridgets association with beer (more below).
According to early sources Imbolc was celebrated with great feasting – a cultural tradition in Ireland which we’ve referred to frequently in this blog… a tradition that can possibly be traced back to the introduction of the Beaker culture in or around 2500BC. It’s been suggested that the introduction of the Beaker was part of an overall new cultural package in Ireland which included drinking kits and archery. As J.P. Mallory notes in his recent book, ‘The Origins of the Irish’, if these beakers were for consuming alcohol, “Irish national pride is certainly upheld, as Ireland has yielded what is just about the largest Beaker in Europe… (one) which would have yielded about 9.5 litres.”.
And of course, this coincides with the introduction of the fulacht fiadh, the hot stone technology which we have proposed were mash tuns used for the preparation of ale…
But, having digressed a little further back than intended, lets return to Bridget and the beer..
Bridget founded a monastery at Kildare and was known as a beer loving Saint – According to Cogitosus, who wrote the oldest extant Life of Saint Brigit, Vita Sanctae Brigidae, around 650, she assisted some lepers in their beer needs:
… this venerable Bridget was asked by some lepers for beer, but she had none. She noticed water that had been prepared for baths. She blessed it, in the goodness of her abiding faith, and transformed it into the best beer, which she drew copiously for the thirsty. It was indeed He who turned water into wine in Cana of Galilee who turned water into beer here, through this most blessed woman’s faith.
We’ll let Zythophile explain this miracle:
Cogitosus, of course, was keen to chalk the bathwater-into-beer event up as a miracle, just like the one at the wedding at Cana, but there is, in fact, a possible non-miraculous explanation for how St Brigid was able to make the thirsty lepers happy. A record of a fire at the monastry of Clonard in Ireland around AD787 speaks of grain stored in ballenio, literally “in a bath”, which seems to mean the grain being soaked as part of the initial processes of malting. What St Brigid drew off, I’d suggest, may have been water from the ballenium where the grain was steeping in the first stage of malt-making.
That sounds an awful lot like a fulacht fiadh to us… Perhaps what Bridget was making was an Irish Sahti, using a wooden trough to mash her milled malted barley…
Her love of beer is perfectly summed up in this 10th century poem which is attributed to her, adapted by Brendan Kennelly and excerpted below:
I’d like to give a lake of beer to God.
I’d love the heavenly
Host to be tippling there
For all eternity.
I’d love the men of Heaven to live with me,
To dance and sing.
If they wanted, I’d put at their disposal
Vats of suffering
I’d sit with the men, the women and God
There by the lake of beer.
We’d be drinking good health forever
And every drop would be a prayer.
Amen to that….