Will the Real St Brigid Please Stand Up?

by Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse (Editorial Comment)

Source 3 will reach its readers in February, the month in which the feast of St Brigid of Kildare is celebrated. In Ireland, Brigid is as popular as St Patrick; and at an early period her cult spread throughout the other Celtic lands, and over a large part of northern Europe. Outside Ireland, she has always been the most popular Irish saint, a fact reflected in the large numbers of holy wells bearing her name scattered throughout these islands. In October 1994, an article was submitted to Source by Cheryl Straffon, editor of the Cornish goddess-centred earth-mysteries magazine Meyn Mamvro, describing the discovery of an hitherto unsuspected and undocumented holy well of St Brigid in Cornwall, by Cheryl and writer Caeia March. Their article was interesting and we were keen to bring their ‘find’ to the attention of Source readers; but as we had a number of reservations (as to format, rather than to content), we wrote to Cheryl asking if a number of emendations or additions could be incorporated into the text – offering to publish it as a letter if this proved impossible. Cheryl’s detailed reply (1 Dec. 1994), while pleading publishers’ deadlines rather than any unwillingness on their part as the reason for not altering their text, agreed to it appearing in our correspondence column. However, the various questions raised in our exchange of letters are interesting ones, and strictly relevant to any consideration of the editorial policy of Source; and we have thus decided to publish not only Cheryl’s and Caeia’s article as it stands, but also the two letters discussing it. Cheryl and Caeia have supported this plan, and a mutually agreed note is appended.

As far as Source is concerned, our editorial policy (such as it is!) will remain unchanged, and our decision to publish the article as an article, with the subsequent letters, is intended to reinforce this, rather than otherwise. Source’s business is the study of holy wells, and we will publish only material which we judge to be strictly relevant. We emphasised this in our first number, and we stress it again now. Source is not an ‘earth mysteries’ publication, though we have many points of contact with this rather amorphous field of study. We are not a ‘Christian’ magazine, as such; nor should it be assumed that we can be associated with any other ‘ism’. The reaction to Source 1 & 2 has been almost entirely positive (so we must be doing something right!). There have been small quibbles about individual items, mostly attempts to correct real or perceived errors, but only three writers have taken us to task about editorial policy as such. One suggested we might be leaning too heavily towards a purely Christian understanding of the well cult, while the second thought that Source relied too heavily on the idea that the well cult was a pagan survival! The third tackled our editorship from an altogether wider base, and suggested our editorial policy was one of ‘post-modernist deconstructionism’, which – being interpreted – appears to mean that by examining particular aspects of the well cult in detail, and endeavouring where possible to make use of the findings of modern scholarship, we are espousing ‘the rejection of the concept of sacredness’ with regard to holy wells.

To take the last problem first. We – and a number of others to whom we showed it – judged this letter to be unfair, and guilty of selective reading of the pieces in question: for this reason, as well as its prolixity, we were somewhat reluctant to print it, but finally decided to do so (see pp. 29-30). We fully accept the well cult as a very special manifestation of the ‘sacred’ (anyone who had actually read the inside back cover of Source 2 would immediately see that one of us could not do otherwise), and fail to see how the applications of the findings of modern research in any way threaten or compromise this sacrality.

As for the other two letters, we may answer them both by saying that, beyond descriptions of the wells as they presently exist, accounts of modern expressions of cults at the wells, and the review of relevant printed or written material from the past, we are totally reliant for our understanding of the wells and well cult, if it is to be at all accurate, on the work of scholars in a variety of disciplines – historians, archaeologists, hagiographers, historians and philosophers of religion, et al. Concerned as Source basically is, with the well cult in the British Isles, it is our contention that as the vast majority of the surviving evidence for the well cult in these islands relates specifically to the period following the conversion to Christianity; and further, that as the main part of this evidence is historical (i.e., written), as opposed to the main part of the evidence so far discovered for water cults in the pre-Christian period, which is primarily archaeological, and that as yet no one has convincingly linked the two periods by anything stronger than suggesting the possibility of direct continuity (‘survival’), without being able to demonstrate such continuity in even a single instance; the vast majority of material appearing in Source has inevitably to appear ‘Christian’ rather than otherwise. It is the nature of the beast! We are in no way opposed to the concept of continuity or survival of cult, but until such time as this possibility becomes a certainty in one, many, or all cases, we hope our contributors will either limit themselves to noticing the possibility, or reference fully any statement of this concept as a fact. (This whole period of the ‘change-over’ of religions in the British Isles is difficult but fascinating, and much work remains to be done. If any reader cares to attempt an article on the problem of ‘survival’, with reference to holy wells – fully referenced, of course! – we would be grateful.)

This preponderance of ‘Christian’ evidence for British well cults leads to a further observation. In the absence of any evidence for the survival of non-Christian religions in Britain from the prehistoric to the modern periods in any obvious or formal sense (leaving aside here the shifting sands of the grey, hotly-contested and difficult-to-handle ‘evidence’ of ‘folk lore’ and ‘folk tradition’), any description of public religious cult, or private cult practices evidently related to the public cult, are necessarily ‘Christian’ in over- or undertone. And while, of course, neo-pagan religious sentiments are to be respected, descriptions of private neo-pagan cult practices, lacking any frame of reference which can be considered as public or religious in any commonly accepted or understood sense, have to be seen as just that, essentially private responses to the wells, rather than accounts of the well cult per se. (Accounts of neo-pagan cult practices at wells which are public and/or repeated over a considerable period would be a different matter.)

For these general reasons (plus the more specific ones detailed in our letter to Cheryl Straffon) Source will not in future publish material of the type presented by the Brigid’s Well article. This is in no way to be seen as disparaging this particular study, or others like it: indeed, we publish it and the 2 letters here specifically to highlight the interest and value of such studies. It is, quite simply, that we feel Source is the wrong place for such material. It is, equally simply, peripheral to the study of holy wells as we see it. Even within our self-imposed limits, which we feel are both rigorous and wide enough to guarantee that each number of Source will always have something to interest and inform all but the most fastidious or exclusive of readers, the potential material for research and publication is all-but limitless; and thus to step outside these limits seems to us both unnecessary and unwise.


Text  © Roy Fry & Tristan Gray Hulse (1995)

Designed & Maintained by Richard L. Pederick (© 1999) | Created 22/11/99

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