Hail Brigid and bank holidays

Who doesn’t love a bank holiday? It’s a day off from work. A day to celebrate, to lounge around, or perhaps even an occasion to grab a quick break away as most bank holidays are tacked on to a Monday to create a three-day weekend. This year we’re getting a new one, bringing the total of Irish bank holidays to ten.

From this year on, St. Brigid’s Day will be celebrated on February 1. The new bank holiday falls on the first Monday in February, except when St Brigid’s day happens to fall on a Friday, in which case that Friday, February 1 will be a public holiday. This year the new bank holiday falls on Monday, February 6. The government introduced St Brigid’s Day to mark “the enormous sacrifices made by Irish people during the Covid pandemic and highlight better times ahead”. It also marks Imbolc, which is the start of Spring in the Irish calendar.

Days off work were a bit of a mixed bag before the creation of official bank holidays. They were largely holy days celebrating local patron saints and varied depending on the individual business and region. In 1871 the Bank Holidays Act was passed in Westminster, creating four public holidays when the banks were closed. These were Easter Sunday, Whit Sunday, the first Monday in August and December 26. Good Friday and Christmas Day were not included, as they were already customary holidays. In 1903 the Bank Holiday (Ireland) Act added 17 March, Saint Patrick’s Day for Ireland only. Northern Ireland retained the holiday after Irish independence.

In 1924 the Irish Free State passed the Public Holidays Act. What is perhaps surprising is that, though workers got a day off they were not necessarily paid for that day. In fact, it wasn’t until 1939 and the Holidays (Employees) Act that paid leave was introduced. This Act set into law Christmas Day, St Stephen’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, Easter Monday, Whit Monday and the first Monday in August as bank holidays. Whit Monday later became the first Monday in June in 1974. New Year’s Day was added in 1975 and the last Monday in October was added in 1977. The most recent addition before St Brigid’s Day was in 1993, with the May bank holiday.

With only ten days off, Ireland is not particularly generous. Topping the list of the countries with the most bank holidays are Colombia and India, joint first in the world with 18 bank holidays a year. Thailand, Lebanon and South Korea are in second place with 16 days off. The European average is 12. Finland has the most bank holidays in Europe, with 15. England and Wales come second to last in the rankings alongside the Netherlands with just eight days off. Last is Mexico with only three official national holidays, though there are up to 11 customary holidays.

The choice of Brigid is a particularly good one for a number of reasons. She is both a revered Irish saint and an important figure in the pagan tradition, thus bridging the country’s pre-Christian and Christian traditions. That the new bank holiday falls on Imbolc, the first day of spring in the Irish calendar is also a good choice. Celebrating the return of the light, and the rebirth of the Earth, makes sense after the dark days of winter.

St Brigid is one of the three national saints along with St Patrick and St Columba. Born north of Dundalk in 451, she is also known as St Brigid of Kildare, where she founded a monastery, becoming the first Abbess. The Goddess Brigid is deeply rooted in Irish pagan folklore. The saint and the goddess share many of the same attributes and have stories and customs that overlap. Like the saint, the goddess is associated with poetry, healing, protection, smithcraft, and domestic animals. 

St Brigid Day is also the first bank holiday that commemorates a female patron saint. Like with bridges and statues, the powers that be are finally getting around to commemorating women – see Rosie Hackett Bridge and calls to erect a statue to Mother Jones in Cork city. So, Hail Brigid! In the words of singer Lizzo: “It’s about damn time!”

Tina Pisco

Tina Pisco is a best-selling author, who has lived in West Cork, Ireland for the past twenty years.

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