Smucker has pieced together a small and lively (and beautifully illustrated) primer on Saint Brigit as told through the late (15th century) Life of Brigit from the Leabhar Breac and customs and prayers related to her.
When I first read of this book, I thought it was intended for children, a youth-level introduction to Saint Brigit. In fact, it's aimed at adults, though it's quite accessibly written and wouldiv style=d be fine for interested tweens or young adults.
Smucker tells the story of the saint, not the goddess, but she doesn't shy from Brigit's goddess connection. While not going so far as to say the two are one, she says, "It is not surprising that underlying, and often mixing with the legends of the saint, is another story, the story of a goddess...The recounting of signs and wonders in the story of Saint Brigid has its own kind of truth, deeper than the literal. Perhaps it is not too great a stretch to imagine that the goddess would be pleased with her namesake..."
Unfortunately, this crumbles somewhat as the story of Brigit is introduced. I was sorry to read of an uncertain and worrying Pagan time into which the light of Christianity was carried, with its message of "love, forgiveness, and hope" (implying I guess that the new Christians div style=were unworried and that Pagans didn't love, forgive, or hope). This is disappointing to find in an era of increasing inter-faith understanding. It was a framework given to Brigit's story centuries ago in order to promote Christianity over the native Irish Paganism; the battle is long since won, but the framework unfortunately remains, and not only in Smucker's work. Apart from this I like the book, which is well intended and beautiful, a brief, balanced, and well written introduction to Saint Brigit's story and traditions.
The main substance of the text is a retelling of the story of Brigit, drawn mainly from the 15th century Leabhar Breac, or Speckled Book, of Ballymacegan, Tipperary, where the author's family hails from. The story is reduced in volume and streamlined into a pleasant fictional account. She has a light touch and clear, relaxed style. The characters have been rounded out; we can appreciate their feelings and motivations as we follow Brigit's adventures from childhood to old age.
One quibble: she says that researchers have dated the "fire temple" at Kildare to pre-Christian times, and asserts that priestesses probably tended the flame there. This is not my understanding. Rather, the date of the so-called fire temple is much later and it isn't certain it was actually used as a fire temple at all. (Recall that the first actual mention of a perpetual flame in Kildare comes with Giraldus Cambrensis in the late 12th century.) It seems unlikely to me that it was ever used as such by the pre-Christian people of the era. I will be discussing this more fully in my review of Kondratiev's chapter on Imbolc in the next review posting: Nonfiction Popular (Neopagan). I trust that if you have evidence to the contrary--perhaps the research on the fire temple date the Smucker refers to--you'll fill me in. I'd love to be proven wrong.
Smucker emphasizes Brigit's interest in freeing slaves, her piety, her generosity, and her compassionate, healing miracles. Episodes presented include Brigit turning well water to ale for a sick travelling companion; her consecration as a bishop and transformation of a dry altar beam to fresh green wood with her touch; several examples of her intervention on the part of prisoners and the condemned; the distress of Brigit's nuns at her constant giving away of the community's wealth. "To trust as she did that God would provide must have been one of the great challenges of Brigid's community (pg 27)."
As I read Smucker's retelling of Brigit's story, I sense that she shares Brigit's very Celtic affection not only for God and people, but for the creatures of land, sea, and sky.
Like the vita her story is based on, Smucker's retelling is an evocation, not to be taken as history. At one point she has a scribe jot down a verse which Smucker then quotes. But of course the earliest of Brigit's stories were written down a century or more after her death; it is poetic license to have the verse appear here. Such license is used sparingly and to good effect, but it should be noted.
The story is followed by a sampling of folk traditions, customs, and prayers. These are carefully selected from a number of sources and are thoughtfully presented. Illustrated instructions for making a Brigit's cross round out what is a very nice little introduction to Saint Brigit.
The book benefits greatly from the art of Ann McDuff. Yet there is no artist's statement or bio, and her name is found only by searching the tiny print on the CIP page. Tsk, tsk, Appletree Press! (Though also, congratulations for finding and including her wonderful art in such profusion.) It's strange to me that even today artists may receive slight recognition for their contributions to books - especially in a book that relies heavily on that contribution.
McDuff's paintings set the tone here - stunning flyleafs, nine full colour, full page illustrations, out of the book's total of seventy-one pages, and a number of smaller colour pieces embedded in the text. They are intricate and lush with expression, hue, and meaning, icons in the style of stained glass that lend great life to the book and tempt one to read the text. Oddly, though, McDuff's painting of "the Celtic Goddess Brigid" looks like three Christian angels, winged, robed, with eyes downcast. There's nothing Pagan, divine, or even Celtic about it.
Of necessity a short and focussed work, there is room for only a small part of the whole story of Brigit; Smucker and McDuff have done a fine job of creating an attractive, informative, and appealing primer on the saint.