Alcohol has a mixed reputation in Ireland. It fills a kinda liminal space, much like the spaces Brigid herself is drawn to. But given the problems that alcohol creates in our society, and has created for generations, how do we reconcile the stories of Brigid as brewer and Brig as societal and communal support?
This morning I’m reading a really interesting paper on the role of Irish masculinity and alcohol. It discusses some of the history of alcohol and the Irish. It explains that it was the arrival of gin in the 17th century that heralded some really problematic drinking. (I wonder what else happened in 17th century Ireland that might have caused the country to turn to drink?) It also discusses some of the aspects of alcohol that are entwined in masculinity. Pubs being predominantly male spaces, the ascension to manhood on the purchase of the first legal drink, etc. I rarely discuss Brigid in relation to masculinity topics, but I think this is useful!
It also discusses the Temperance movement in Ireland, pointing out that as well as having some of the highest alcohol consumptions in the EU, Ireland also has the highest % of the population that are teetotal, i.e. don’t consume alcohol at all. We have a mixed relationship to the substance in this country, to say the least.
And ok, we can’t completely blame the Brits. Colonialism has a role to play here, but it’s not the only reason. I think…
This report from the Irish Times outlines how the bishop of Christchurch in Dublin granted stonemasons 14 pints of beer a day, while they were working in a quarry. This might be due to the calories contained in the beer (apparently 700-800 per pint!). It might also be a tastier way of quenching the thirst than plain water.
Was Brigid in a quarry in 16th century Dublin?
Well, I can’t say whether she was or she wasn’t, to be honest, but quarrying is the sort of the same type of work that forging is. Creation and destruction all in one.
More interesting, to me at least, are the stories around Brigid and ale/beer in the hagiographies. In Cogitosus, there are 5 mentions of wine and 24 mentions of ale. In Bethu Brigte, 1 wine, 26 ale and 1 beer. So people knew and used ale, wine, beer in 7th century Ireland anyway. Indeed, the hagiographies mention Brigid as performing miracles regarding ale on several occasions.
Then they went to their country, Dubthach and his daughter Brigit, in the province of Offaly; and there did Brigit work a wonderous miracle, to wit, her fostermother was in weakness of disease, and the fostermother sent the holy Birgit and another maiden with her to the house of a certain man named Boethchú, to ask him for a draught of ale. He refused Brigit. Then Brigit filled a vessel out of a certain well, and blessed it, and (the water) was turned into the taste of ale, and she gave it to her fostermother, who straightway became whole thereby. Now when they went to drink the banquet not a drop threof was found.On the Life of St Brigit, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T201010.html
Low Sunday approached. ‘I do not think it fortunate now’, said Brigit to her maidens, ‘not to have ale on Low Sunday for the bishop who will preach and say Mass.’ As soon as she said that, two maidens went to the water to bring in water and they had a large churn for the purpose, and Brigit was not aware of this. When they came back again, Brigit saw them there. ‘Thanks be to God’, said Brigit. ‘God has given us beer for our bishop.’ The nuns became frightened then. ‘May God help us. O maiden.’ ‘Whatever foolish thing I said, I have not said anything evil, O nuns.’ ‘The water which was brought inside, because you have blessed it, God did what you desired and immediately it was changed into ale with the smell of wine from it, and better ale was never set to brew in the [whole] world.’ The one churn was sufficient [for them] with their guests and the bishop.Bethu Brigte, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T201002/
It’s clear to me, from these excerpts, that people at this time recognised ale, beer, wine as “special occasion” drinks, although not overly special. You wouldn’t use a particularly special drink for a slave, would you?
Brig, mythology and alcohol
Now, it’s clear from Caith Maighe Tuireadh 2 that water was definitely seen as healing:
This then is what used to put fire into the warriors who were slain there, so that they were swifter on the morrow. Because Dian-cecht and his two sons, even Octriuil and Miach, and his daughter Airmed were singing spells over the well named Sláine. Now their mortally wounded men were cast into it as they would be slain. They were alive when they would come out. Their mortally wounded became whole through the might of the chant of the four leeches who were about the well.The Second Battle of Moytura, https://celt.ucc.ie/published/T300011.html
Bres was dethroned, at least partially, because however often the chiefs of the TDD visited him, “their breaths did not smell of ale“. There’s no connection with Brig and ale in CMT 2, more of a background “info about the culture” kinda thing.
Part of the chief’s role was to provide food, drink and entertainment to his subjects, tribe, people. Not providing this was grounds for removal. So, this was an important aspect of Irish life, even in the lore.
Problems with alcohol
So, remember earlier, when I mentioned the paradox of the Irish relationship with alcohol? Well, it causes a lot of trouble in our society.
DrinkAware is an Irish website, promoting the awareness of the problems alcohol causes in society, as well as the effects of drinking. In comparison to the world population, Ireland performs way above it’s weight in alcohol consumption. While in general, world-wide, in 2019, adults (deemed 15+ for some reason) would consume approx 5.8L of pure alcohol, in Ireland that number rose to 12.75L. And while the world-wide figure decreased 6% since 2010, the Irish number… did not.
Info from DrinkAware:
- WHO (World Health Organisation) Global Observatory Data Repository found that the proportion of adults (15+ years) who have consumed any alcohol during the past 12 months was 81.3% in 2016.
- Healthy Ireland 2022 identified that overall, 67% of the population (sample age 15+) consumed alcohol in the past 6 months.
- In the 2019–20 National Drugs and Alcohol Survey, 74.2% of survey respondents reported having consumed alcohol in the last 12 months, corresponding to 2,903,000 of the general population in Ireland aged 15 years and older.
- According to Drinkaware’s Barometer data, 83% of Irish adults drink alcohol at least once in the last 30 days. This question is asked annually and the result for 2021 was 77% and 72% for 2020.
- This is broadly in line with those reported in the initial CSO (Central Statistics Office) Social Impact of COVID-19 Survey that found 80.6% respondents stating that they consumed alcohol in April 2020.
There are some (kinda!) good things about alcohol in Ireland as well. Alcohol use disorders are roughly in line with the European rates (8.5% in Ireland vs 8.8% in Europe as a whole). Alcohol dependence is at 3.8% in Ireland vs 3.7% in Europe as a whole. Any sort of alcohol dependency or disorder is 3-4 times more likely in men than in women.
Alcohol is a major issue in intimate partner violence, drink driving, mental health, physical health… all sorts of areas that I feel Brigid would be very definitely interested in. Health in general, of course, is well within her bailiwick. But she’s also about the health of a community – and sometimes, alcohol can be a plague in this area. Bringing it back to the masculinity conversation at the start of this meandering post, because much of masculinity in modern Ireland is linked to “being the breadwinner” and “standing your round”, this can lead to some issues with drinking. Particularly if the “being the breadwinner” part is no longer there.
Plus, we tend to view alcohol differently in this country. The news that 3 pints constituted a binge was shocking to the entire country. I mean, my Ma would drink more than that easily and she’s known as a small drinker. 3 pints is more of an after-work “quick one” sort of deal. But then there are lots of us that go long phases without drinking which helps average out over the year… but doesn’t give the full story!
Brigid and alcohol
We can’t judge the past by modern standards. We certainly can’t judge past alcohol by modern standards. And I think, there are far fewer people in Ireland standing up at the bar on a Saturday night, downing 15+ pints of Guinness. (Not unheard of in my youth…)
When Brigid was brewing ale, it was deemed a nutritional drink, a way to get calories into you, a special occasion treat from water. These days, for most of us, alcohol is far easier to obtain and afford. That doesn’t mean she’s adverse to a drink, mind! There’s a prayer attributed to her named “Lake of Beer” after all. But that prayer as well shows the role of beer, in this case, as minor social lubricant rather than sole liquid consumption.
In my own house, Brigid can get offered whiskey, sherry, port, brandy. It’s usually the spirits. If you’re not in a place to offer alcohol though, don’t worry. Clean water is just as appropriate, as is milk. These are all equally relevant to her lore.
And if you are working to help those with alcohol dependencies or dealing with the effects of alcohol in society, you’re also doing Brigid’s work. Whether you look at it from a physical/mental point of view or a societal point of view, alcohol and the abuse of alcohol has changed in recent centuries from what I’ve read. And it’s not for the better.