The Friday Poem on 24/02/23
We chose ‘The Biddy Boys’ by Frank Dullaghan to be our Friday Poem this week because it allows us a glimpse into an old Irish tradition. It’s written in the persona of the eldest girl in the family, the one who brings the rushes in for the St. Brigid’s Eve ritual. We are drawn in from the start, pulled into a dance with the Biddy Boys and their straw Brideog doll, then left puzzling a question. Where is the wind coming from – the Christian devil, perhaps, or a pagan past? It’s a confident poem, busy and evocative, and we like it.
The Biddy Boys
St. Brigid’s Eve
Three times I called from outside.
Being the eldest girl, I was tasked to do so.
I bid them kneel and then entered
with an armful of rushes from the marsh,
which I heaped by the wall.
We prayed to St. Brigid, had a big pot
of spuds going on the stove.
They came over the threshold,
the Biddy Boys, with a straw doll
almost as big as myself, looking for money.
One had a mask with the face of the devil.
A melodeon started up. I was pulled
from my chair at the table and twirled.
There was noise, a stamping of feet, a hand that
moved down my back from my neck to my arse.
Away with youse now, and your Brideog,
my father said, giving them a handful
of coins. God bless you and may St. Brigid protect
you and yours, they sang from the door.
When the devil blew me a kiss
a wind raised the rushes from the floor.
Note: St Brigid is a patron saint of Ireland. She came from the area around my own home town of Dundalk in the early 6th century AD. The celebration eve, as is often the case, coincides with an older Gaelic Brigid, goddess of healers and poets. Many older traditions spilled into the Christian celebrations. The Brideog was a straw doll, often as much as four-foot tall, that the masked Biddy boys took with them from house to house, drinking, dancing, singing, and going a bit wild.
The eldest daughter would usually gather rushes for the family to make St Brigid’s crosses while eating the tradition meal of potatoes and freshly churned butter. The family would be kneeling in prayer when the rushes were brought into the house. In some areas, these traditions lasted into the ‘50s and ‘60s. The Covid pandemic has resulted in a renewed interest in such traditions.