This year marks the third iteration of Hamilton Gallery’s St Brigid’s exhibition series, a group show by Irish women artists marking Lá Fhéile Bríde. Pagan goddess, patron saint and now feminist icon, St Brigid is a powerful figure in the Irish cultural imaginary. The series began in 2019 to coincide with the St Brigid’s Day festival, an initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs to showcase the creativity of Irish women across the arts. Each year, the gallery’s director, Martina Hamilton, has commissioned a poet to respond to the history and legacy of Ireland’s foremost female saint. This year, eighty-six invited artists meditated on Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s new work, St Brigid’s Well.
As befits a showcase of work by contemporary Irish artists, the resulting exhibition, although dominated by painting, is eclectic and energising. Ní Chuilleanáin’s poem offers vivid imagery for respondents; the pink trousers and red sandals of a visitor to the well generate a vibrant composition in Barbara Allen’s Pink Jean Thing as glowing, saturated strokes of colour, while in Lisa Gingle’s The Rag Tree, crimson appears as a glowing ribbon tied around a winter branch.
The holy wells scattered throughout the country are sites of female pilgrimage and ritual and provide a motif for many of the contributors.
Like many of Ireland’s other Christian saints, Brigid predates Christianity. In pagan myth Brigid was a triple goddess – of healing, fire and poetry – and the saint who took her name carried some of those same associations – healing, power over water and protection during pregnancy. The holy wells scattered throughout the country are sites of female pilgrimage and ritual and provide a motif for many of the contributors. Jane Murtagh’s The Well, a geometric abstraction of this place of power, visualises a pure rectangle of gold leaf against a dappled, copper background, while Breda Burns’ photographic Words to the Well overlays fragments of text on a water-rippled background.
Next year, St Brigid will be honoured with an official state holiday in her name. ‘St Brigid’s Well’ runs until 26 March.